Hill Scrum Blues
The voters spoke loudly, but Congress may have heard something different
Americans had ethics on their mind when they took control of Congress away from Republicans. In fact, 41 percent of voters in a post-election survey said corruption and scandals were "extremely important" factors in their vote. And both the winners and the losers promised to heed the message; Republicans said they'd learned their lessons, while Democrats pledged substantive reforms. Steny Hoyer, the current minority whip, followed that lead in a meeting with reporters, as he talked of the Democrats' legislative priorities come January. Yes, the party had called for upping the minimum wage and passing the 9/11 commission recommendations. But last week, Hoyer seemed to have those midterm voters on his mind. "Clearly Iraq was a major reason for their vote," he said. "Corruption was also a very important reason."
That was then. As the week wore on, and both parties turned to the business of electing new leaders, the lofty rhetoric seemed in the view of many to be giving way to the same old thing. In fact, the internal wrangling on Capitol Hill gave more credence to Washington's age-old pursuit of personal politics, strong-arm tactics, and backroom dealing. Congress is a club, after all, and in the light of day, it looked plenty clubby-even if all the members weren't getting along. By week's end, reform-substantive or otherwise-was looking like a mighty tall order.
Misstep. There was, however, enough drama to fill a play of several acts. Democratic Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi indelicately stepped into her own party's leadership elections, managing to turn their first week after 12 years out of power into a divisive intraparty brawl. Pelosi put her chips on an old friend, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania. It was a matter of loyalty, she said, and an attempt to credit Murtha for pushing a new course in Iraq. But her bold initiative bombed, damaging not only her own leadership credentials but the unity of her caucus as well. Murtha lost in a landslide to Hoyer in the race for majority leader. Even Pelosi allowed afterward that it was a "stunning victory" for the 12-term congressman from Maryland.
Murtha, the Vietnam vet who ran Pelosi's own leadership campaign, had helped shift the Iraq debate when he called for troop redeployments this year. But the longtime power player on the Appropriations Committee, who has championed millions of dollars in earmarks, faced mounting questions about his murky ethics record. His leadership candidacy brought back stories of the 26-year-old Abscam bribery scandal, in which Murtha was implicated but never charged. He punctuated the doubts by telling a group of moderates that the lobbying reform bill pushed by Democrats this year was "total crap."
Hoyer has long-established roots within the party and had helped many of the freshman representatives raise money, but watchdog groups aren't wild about his independence, either. Public Citizen ranked Hoyer fifth in the House for receiving money from lobbyists, three spots behind Murtha. "I'm sure that many voters who voted on the issue of corruption were hugely disappointed by the Democrats this week," says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "That this was the first action out of the box-putting up a guy with serious ethics problems-if I was a voter who had crossed over or was independent and then they did this, I'd be thinking, 'What did I do?'"