EDITORIAL: Old-school corruption

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Before taking control of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.” However, with dozens of mostly Democratic lawmakers and various staff under investigation by the House’s twin ethics bodies, the majority clearly values political power over clean government.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles B. Rangel, 20-term New York Democrat, and Defense Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Rep. John P. Murtha, 19-term Pennsylvania Democrat, are the poster children for how failed ethics cops protect old-guard lawmakers. While under investigation by the ethics committee, they continue to hold onto power in the face of obvious signs of corruption.

Along with 24-year veteran Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, Indiana Democrat, and 18-year veteran Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, Mr. Murtha remains intertwined in an ongoing federal investigation of the PMA Group. Clients of the defunct defense-lobbying firm received millions in earmarks from the lawmakers after PMA’s staff and clients gave more than $1 million in campaign contributions to the three lawmakers.

Rep. Norm Dicks, 16-term Washington Democrat; Rep. Marcy Kaptur, 14-term Ohio Democrat; Rep. C.W. Bill Young, 20-term Florida Republican; and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, eight-term Kansas Republican, also are all facing internal House investigations for their ties to the group. Though none of these lawmakers has been charged with a crime, the situation has the unmistakable stink of a classic “pay-to-play” scheme and more than calls into question their continued service on the committee that gives out defense funds.

The House ethics committee has been dithering in its investigation of Mr. Rangel’s activities for more than a year, perhaps by design, because a completed investigation almost certainly threatens Mr. Rangel’s career. With no end to his reign as the House’s chief tax writer in sight, Mr. Rangel faces a litany of troubling accusations that include failing to declare more than $650,000 in assets on his 2007 financial disclosure forms, failing to pay taxes on rental income and landing tax benefits by claiming three different homes as his primary residence.

The accusations against Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, first elected in 1973, provide another example of how the process is broken. He is accused of taking bribes from oil executive Bill Allen, who is awaiting sentencing on federal bribery charges. Mr. Young at least was forced out of his post as the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.

The lack of action by Democratic leaders is not surprising. The ethics committee has a long history of being an ineffective tool for investigating potential violations of ethics laws, only taking action when it is absolutely politically necessary. Democrats’ smoke-and-mirrors Office of Congressional Ethics, created in 2008 under the guise of improving the process, is fighting a turf battle with the ethics panel and has only made the process more complex.

If Mrs. Pelosi is serious about ensuring lawmakers act ethically, she would push real reforms of this flawed process and stop grading on a massive curve. That requires a willingness to launch tough, active investigations instead of the foot-dragging cover-ups that have become all too typical.

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