- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

Democrats have reined in their use of the “culture of corruption” mantra in their efforts to oust congressional Republicans from power, fearing the slogan would backfire after two senior members of their own party were implicated in ethical scandals.

Last year, minority-party leaders announced that they would offer something different from a culture of corruption, after a series of indictments and resignations involving Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other Republican lawmakers. The phrase became a regular Democratic refrain.

Then, FBI officials revealed they found $90,000 in marked $100 bills in Rep. William J. Jefferson’s freezer, and the Democrats opted to change course. Now, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is regularly asked why the term has been shelved, spins the culture of corruption question to say Republicans are incompetent and beholden to special interests.

She also told the Hill newspaper in June that Democrats’ “culture of corruption” message was ending, and it was “time to talk about us.”

Mrs. Pelosi did trot out the line last week in a statement about Mr. DeLay, under indictment by a Texas grand jury on money-laundering charges.

“Texas voters now have a clear choice: to continue the culture of corruption or go in a new direction that upholds a high ethical standard,” she said, referring to Thursday’s court decision to keep the Republican’s name on the November ballot despite his resignation from Congress.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican, said the message seems to have “disappeared” after being the Democratic “key to victory” for months.

The culture of corruption message was unsuccessful because many voters don’t make the connection between ethics scandals and lobbying reform, said Bruce Cain, a Washington-based professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

“It hasn’t worked as a general theme,” he said. “It may cause some people to run harder, and it may play in as a marginal factor, but it’s never going to be just that.”

A Pelosi spokesman said the phrase won’t go away, but political observers and Republicans have noticed that the message has subsided since the accusations against Mr. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, surfaced. Also, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, West Virginia Democrat, has been accused of directing $178 million to nonprofits whose leaders were donors to his campaigns.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said political favors are “woven throughout” Republican policy, such as the energy and prescription-drug bills.

“That’s why we don’t have energy independence: They are cronies with the big oil companies,” he said.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said voters will hear about the “cost of corruption.”

The House Republican fundraising arm responded with a press release announcing that Mrs. Pelosi was taking ethics “off the table” and saying the Democrats are “plagued by ethics hypocrisy.”

The Pelosi spokesman said Democrats will bring out the phrase to highlight Republican incompetence on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Mrs. Pelosi, who is poised to become House speaker if the Democrats capture a net gain of at least 15 seats this fall, insisted that Mr. Jefferson give up his seat on the prestigious Ways and Means panel when authorities announced that the lawmaker, who has not been charged with a crime, was videotaped accepting $100,000 that officials say was a bribe.

Mr. Jefferson refused, but Democrats voted to strip him from his committee seat. The full House voted to make the move official. Earlier this year, Mr. Mollohan voluntarily stepped aside as the ranking Democrat on the House ethics panel.

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