Monday, December 11, 2006

LA-02: Rep. - What William Jefferson's re-election does not mean

A ridiculous meme is emerging about Saturday's re-election of William Jefferson (D-LA), who represents the 2nd Congressional District of Louisiana. The line of thought being pushed aggressively by this AP story, among others, is that Jefferson's electoral win equals trouble for Nancy Pelosi, the soon-to-be speaker of the House of Representatives.

He has not been charged with any crime and has denied he did anything wrong. But he returns to Washington under a cloud that will complicate Pelosi's vow to make this "the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history."

Democrats ran against a "culture of corruption," which they said Republicans had fostered while in control of Congress. Election Day surveys showed that corruption and scandal were deciding factors in how people voted.

The victory by Jefferson, the first black member of Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, forces Pelosi to weigh her pledge to run an ethical Congress against the influence of New Orleans's elected representative.
Despite its breathless headline, Legislator's win complicates ethics matters for Democrats, reporter Jim Kuhnenn's story ultimately concludes that the massive headache for Pelosi will be to decide whether Jefferson gets any committee assignments. A couple of disembodied pull-quotes allude to the "ethical dilemma" now facing congressional Democrats:

"It's going to be quite a headache for the Democrats," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said yesterday.


Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said yesterday that Pelosi must guard against appearing to bow to pressure. "At another level, the fact that he won reelection, that his constituents brought him back, speaks in his favor to get some modest committee assignment."
Yeah, that sounds grim.

That is, it sounds grim until you give it any thought at all. Once that happens, you realize that Jefferson's re-election does not complicate in any way Speaker-elect Pelosi's determination to run an honest, open and ethical congress.

This is what William Jefferson's re-election means: that a majority of voters in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District re-elected an ethically-tainted incumbent.

I don't know how much marked bribery investigation money hidden in a freezer it would have taken for those voters to decide Jefferson did not deserve a ninth term in congress. Clearly, $90 thousand didn't do the trick. Maybe $180 thousand would have been enough. Maybe it would have taken $900 thousand. Who knows? Maybe there is no amount of marked bribery investigation money hidden in a freezer that would have caused the voters of LA-02 to decide this guy had run out his string. If that is the case, so be it. We have elections in this country so that citizens can decide whom they wish to represent them in the halls of government. If they want a back-bencher whose ethical and legal problems will keep him from getting anything done on their behalf, that is their decision to make. They get a chance to change their minds in two years. That's democracy.

This, however, is what William Jefferson's re-election does not mean: that under Democratic leadership, the 110th Congress is destined to be as ethically-challenged as the den of thieves, pimps, whores and fools that it became under the stewardship of the Republican Party. This, undoubtedly, is the malign suggestion of stories such as this. Since voters rejected them on November 7th, Republicans have been engaged in a no-holds-barred campaign to convince anyone who will listen that it doesn't really mean anything.

Well, sure, Democrats won both houses of congress in one overwhelming electoral victory, but it doesn't mean there is anything good about the Democratic Party! They didn't really win anything. The Republicans lost, that's all. The Republicans lost because of systemic corruption, incompetence and dysfunctionality, but the Democrats are no better. See, the voters in one district in Louisiana re-elected a congressman who is under investigation! That proves they're no better than the Republicans!

Except that it does not prove, or even imply, anything of the sort. The decision of the voters in Jefferson's district is in no way a reflection of Nancy Pelosi's ability to run the U.S. House of Representatives in an ethical fashion. What happened in LA-02 on Saturday was a function of democracy. What happens in Washington, D.C. over the next two years will be a function of leadership. Speaker-elect Pelosi has already demonstrated her willingness and ability to take decisive action against an ethically-tainted member of congress. Earlier this year, as House Minority Leader, she stripped committee assignments away from a member who became the subject of an FBI bribery investigation. That member's name is William Jefferson. Members of the Black Congressional Caucus screamed bloody murder. She stripped Jefferson's committee assignments, anyway. There is no reason to assume that Pelosi will be inclined to restore the assignments while Jefferson remains under an ethical cloud. So much for "bowing to pressure," assuming that's what Norm Ornstein and Melanie Sloan are talking about.

In fact, the action Pelosi has already taken against Jefferson demonstrates the precise opposite point of the one suggested by the AP in this case, or by FOX "News" in this one. So far, she has a 100 percent record of dealing decisively with members of the Democratic caucus who are accused of unethical behavior. I say, well done! In this, she has already proven the Democratic Party's superiority over the GOP. I say again, well done!

Clearly, the media have their eyes peeled for even the appearance of impropriety in the Democratic majority, even before they take their seats. So be it. Their diligence would have been nice during the GOP's disastrous turn at the helm, of course. Our country could be so much healthier, happier, prosperous and at peace today. Oh, well. Better late than never, I suppose. We welcome the honest scrutiny of a diligent press, but we will be watching and listening, as well.

The media are free to infer from Jefferson's re-election whatever negative things they wish about Nancy Pelosi's leadership, just as they did from the election of the House Majority Leader and from the contrived controversry over the chairmanship of Intelligence Committee. But, when their inferences are inaccurate, unfair and inflammatory, they had better be aware that we will never fail to call them on it.