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Commentary: Time for Democrats to stress ethics

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: House Ways and Means chairman's fate is in the balance
  • Charles Rangel is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee
  • Zelizer says there's long tradition of ethical breaches by congressional leaders
  • He says Congress must take steps to stop violations from happening again
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says Congress needs strong rules to stop ethical violations from happening again.

Julian Zelizer says Congress needs strong rules to stop ethical violations from happening again.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Congressman Charles Rangel's fate hangs in the balance as a report concerning the Ways and Means Committee chairman is being prepared for release in early January.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is waiting for the report from the House Ethics Committee before deciding what to do about several allegations against Rangel.

He's under investigation for allegedly using formal letterhead to solicit donations to a school to be named in his honor; helping one donor's company keep a tax loophole; having unreported income from a vacation villa; and having several rent-controlled apartments at below market rates, including one set up for his campaign operations in violation of state and local laws.

Democrats will have to decide what to do with Rangel. But it would be a mistake to only focus on punishing Rangel, if he is guilty, and not on the underlying issues that have been raised by this scandal.

We should remember that Rangel is not the first chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to find himself in political hot water. Rangel could join a cohort of powerful Ways and Means chairmen who have met notorious fates.

The chairmanship is a position that elevates legislators to the nexus of political and private interest group power. The temptation to abuse the position has been overwhelming to some.

The most famous case was Wilbur Mills, the Arkansan who controlled the committee from 1959 to 1974. Mills was one of the most important men in Washington in the 1960s. Mills helped design Medicare and shaped the income-tax system.

The scandal that brought him down centered on his relationship with an Argentinean stripper, named Fanne Foxe. The two were caught in a Lincoln Continental that was speeding near the Tidal Basin.

When the Park Police stopped the car, the stripper jumped out and ran into the water. Mills trailed her. Voters re-elected Mills the following month, but when he joined her on stage and appeared drunk at her first public performance after the Tidal Basin incident, Democrats stripped him of his power.

While the sex scandal was the straw that brought him down, Mills was already the focus of attention from younger reformers.

The relationship between Mills and powerful interest groups, such as the oil industry, had become the subject of investigations following his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1972.

There was substantial evidence that Mills had received campaign funds from lobbyists who maintained close ties to the committee. Reformers also resented Mills because he had used committee power to stifle younger liberals who opposed him.

When he appeared drunk in Boston, Massachusetts, this was an opportunity to force him to step down and to weaken Ways and Means. Reformers created subcommittees to decentralize power in Ways and Means and passed sunshine laws that opened the legislative process to greater public scrutiny.

Mills was part of the reason the Democratic Caucus passed reforms that empowered the party leaders over committee chairs, who used to be more autonomous. Campaign finance laws in 1974 created limits on campaign contributions and created an independent commission, the FEC, to oversee elections.

Several decades later, Wilbur Mills' protégé, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, met a similar fate. Rostenkowski had been a legend on Capitol Hill. He allied with President Ronald Reagan to reform Social Security in 1983 by increasing taxes and cutting benefits. He also helped to push through Congress a controversial deficit reduction package in 1990.

But Rostenkowski also liked to play by the old rules of politics, much more a machine politician than the generation that came of age around Vietnam and Watergate. Republicans were determined to paint the Democratic majority as corrupt. Rostenkowski's problems began with an investigation by Jay Stephens, a Reagan-appointed U.S. Attorney, into the House Post Office, a haven for Democratic patronage.

Rostenkowski was indicted for corruption on May 30, 1994, for 17 counts of misusing public funds, including purchasing goods at the House stationery store for constituents, padding the payroll by hiring family friends and selling stamps for cash. He refused to plead guilty.

Democrats forced him to resign as chairman. He then had a two-year trial, during which he lost his seat in 1994. He pled guilty in 1996 to lesser charges, which resulted in his being sent to jail.

While Republicans did pass reforms that tightened oversight and rules on these kinds of abuses, we did not see the same breadth of reforms that followed Mills' downfall.

Looking back to the Mills era, Democrats and Republicans should use the problems that became evident with Rangel to push for the kinds of lobbying reforms that have been missing, even after the Jack Abramoff scandals. The House made some progress with an ethics bill after the 2006 midterm elections, but with three major shortcomings.

The first was that Congress did not create an independent body to monitor legislative misbehavior. Without such a commission, it is unlikely Congress will ever enforce the rules.

The second is that the new rules did not create strong prohibitions on the revolving door between K Street and Capitol Hill.

Finally, the reforms were silent on campaign finance. Until legislators are no longer dependent on private money for re-election, lobbyists will always be able to gain access to Congress.

If Congress simply uses the Rangel scandal to punish Rangel, their action won't accomplish much in the long-term. With revelations from the case of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Democrats should feel even more pressure to act.

We will soon have a president in the White House who campaigned on the promise of a new kind of politics.

He should work with Congress to deal with the core issues that lead members of the legislative branch to abuse their power and seek reforms that will diminish the number of times we have to go through these stories.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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