Embattled Democratic candidates will likely be fending off charges of corruption from Republicans this fall even as they defend policies polls show to be unpopular in the face of a sour economy.
Several key ethics cases involving Democrats are poised to get a very public airing in the coming weeks, and new charges have surfaced over the summer recess.
When Congress adjourned in August, it left behind unresolved ethics charges against Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y.
The action on those two cases — and all the accompanying attention — is set to resume when Congress returns this week, starting as early as this month with a public trial on ethics charges against Rangel that will be televised and plastered across newspapers and blogs.
“I do think they have a problem here,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Having ethics hearings involving senior Democrats right before a close election is going to again put ethics in the spotlight. I think that can have an impact.”
Democrats and Republicans know ethics troubles can be particularly damaging if they surface close to Election Day. In October 2006, a scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., entangled the entire GOP leadership and by most accounts contributed to the Republican Party losing the majority in the House.
At the time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised to “drain the swamp,” in Congress, a phrase Republicans are now using against her as Democratic charges pile up.
“Pelosi's swamp just got dirtier,” the House Republican campaign arm declared last month after Waters was charged in August with violating the House code of conduct for helping secure a loan for her husband's bank.
In addition to the ethics troubles surrounding Rangel and Waters, Congress is awaiting a report from the ethics panel, made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, on how the Democratic leadership responded to charges that ex-Rep. Eric Massa sexually harassed some of his House office employees. The panel has interviewed the top Democratic leadership and staff, who could be in hot water for not acting faster when complaints surfaced about Massa.
And in recent days news reports have revealed two members of the Congressional Black Caucus, both House Democrats, awarded thousands of dollars in CBC Foundation scholarships to family members.
Rangel, meanwhile, is demanding a public hearing to defend himself against 13 charges by the bipartisan committee, including failure to pay back taxes and using his powers as Ways and Means Committee chairman to help companies that donated to a school named after him. Before leaving town in August, Rangel signaled he had no intention of accepting the charges and averting trial, as many of his Democratic colleagues hoped he would do. He delivered a lengthy speech on the floor of the House in August, defending himself and lashing out at the Democrats who want him to go away quietly for the sake of the party.
Waters took a similar stance, holding a press conference lasting an hour and a half in which she proclaimed, “I won't cut a deal.”
An ethics committee official told The Washington Examiner that no date has been set for either hearing.
Peter Fenn, a top Democratic strategist, said Democrats had bigger things to worry about than ethics in the upcoming election.
“Voters are really focused on the economy,” Fenn said.