Monday, May 17, 2010

Democrats were only too happy to benefit in the last midterm elections from the uproar over the Republicans’ mishandling of sexual misconduct by a GOP congressman. This time around, they’re hoping they don’t get trapped in a similar net.

The circumstances of Republican Mark Foley’s come-ons with former congressional pages in 2006 are not a precise match with those surrounding Democrat Eric Massa’s behavior with members of his House staff. But once again, a competitive midterm election year is unfolding in the shadow of an investigation that could determine whether the party in control of Congress ignored unethical behavior by one of their own.

Both Mr. Foley, of Florida, and Mr. Massa, of New York, resigned from the House soon after the scandals surrounding their behavior became public.

But the House Republican leadership responded slowly in 2006 to the Foley matter, feeding the perception that it wished to ignore the problem. Democrats used the case to develop a broader theme that Republicans tolerated a “culture of corruption” and that a Democratic Congress would “drain the swamp.”

Can Republicans in 2010 substitute the name Massa for Foley and turn “culture of corruption” into a rallying cry to drive Democrats out of the majority? It’s a critical political question, especially if Republicans want a campaign issue beyond their opposition to the new health care law and the usual criticism of Democrats as being for big government and tax-and-spend policies.

The answer depends, in part, on what a House investigation finds, and when in this campaign year it reports its findings. In the meantime, Democrats have decided to leave Mr. Massa’s seat vacant until November rather than risk losing it in what would have been a high-profile special election months out.

What’s established so far is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office took no known action when the first red flag about Mr. Massa was raised in October. When there was a second red flag in February, though, action by Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer was swift. The complaints went to the House ethics committee.

Timing is important in politics. Mr. Foley, who had sent sexually suggestive messages to former House pages, resigned about five weeks before the 2006 election, and his case was intertwined with the fall campaign.

News that some Massa employees accused their boss of groping — and propositioning — male staff members surfaced in the spring, giving Democrats time to develop a strategy to counter any Republican criticism.

Party leaders can’t be blamed for a single member’s sexual proclivities. But ignoring them when they involve former and current congressional staff, if not covering them up, is a different matter, and that’s what helped sink Republicans in 2006.

A House ethics committee report after the 2006 election found that several GOP leaders, including then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, and top GOP aides did nothing after learning of Foley’s suggestive messages to young men who interned in the House as teenagers.

In the Massa case, his chief of staff told a speaker’s aide in October that the congressman had problems — an exchange Mrs. Pelosi’s office acknowledges.

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