New Orleans, Old Problems

The Republican wipeout of 2006 was largely a result of Iraq and dissatisfaction of Bush's leadership. However, there was another force in play that led to the Democratic wave: Republican corruption. Tom Delay, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Scooter Libby, and Mark Foley all became poster children for the broken Congress and the Republican leadership's inability to keep their own members in line.

However, Republicans did not have a monopoly on corruption, as is evidenced by the William Jefferson saga. For those who may be unaware, Rep. Jefferson of Louisiana is under investigation by the FBI for bribery involving a telecommunications company in Africa. While the FBI was investigating Jefferson's home, they found $90,000 in his freezer, thus leading him to be lampooned as "Dollar Bill" Jefferson. His antics led to him being ridiculed as one of the Ten Worst Congressmen.

Rep. Jefferson did not receive enough votes in the regular election to win re-election outright on November 6. This is because Louisiana's election laws stipulate that all candidates must appear on the ballot and the top two vote getters will participate in a runoff at a later date, regardless of their party. The only way a candidate can win the election outright is to win more than 50% of the vote. Thus, there are no primaries in Louisiana for House and mayoral contests.

Anyway, Democrats were likely secretly hoping that Rep. Jefferson would be defeated because his very existence and his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee undermined the Democrats' "culture of corruption" argument and gave the Republicans a useful weapon. However, although Jefferson did not win the November 6 election outright, he did win the runoff. In response, to project an image of no tolerance for ethical violations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took Jefferson off the Ways and Means Committee and reassigned him to the lower profile Small Business Committee. She generally received favorable reviews for doing this.

However, Jefferson still has not been indicted despite his ethical problems. Speaker Pelosi also wants to reassign Jefferson to the more powerful Homeland Security Committee because of the direct impact Hurricane Katrina had on his New Orleans district. Republicans are now crying foul and want to schedule an up or down vote to put all congressmen on record of supporting Jefferson or not supporting him. They argue that an ethically-challenged congressman under investigation should not have access to homeland security information.

To Pelosi's credit, it is true that Jefferson has not been charged with any crimes. However, the mere appearance of impropriety may cause her more trouble than Jefferson's appointment is worth. Washington insiders and political junkies understand that Jefferson is not a convicted felon, so technically there's nothing wrong with his being reassigned to the Homeland Security Committee. But to the average American in Terre Haute, Indiana, this does not go over well. They will want to know why "the guy with all the cash in his freezer" is getting a seat on the Homeland Security Committee. And they're going to be angry because they thought that putting Democrats in charge of Congress would end the corruption that festered under Republican rule.

Republicans are smart to hold Pelosi's feet to the fire here, even if it is just about "politics." Until the allegations against Jefferson have been definitively disproven and his innocence has authoritatively been declared, Democrats would do well by keeping Jefferson's profile as low as possible. Yes, the voters of Jefferson's district essentially gave him a second chance. But to voters across the nation, Rep. Jefferson is a crooked laughing stock that doesn't deserve anything better than political table scraps.

Read more about Jefferson's plight in Congressional Quarterly.

2 comment(s):

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I have to sympathize with Bill Jefferson because--like Barry Bonds--he hasn't been convicted of anything. Just "what evidence points to".

I actually think Pelosi will be stronger and if she considers that Americans may think her well to see Jefferson as we should: innoncent until proven guilty.

That's the problem with our country. We believe rumors, media-branded info, and the hype. Jefferson has not been arrested or anything. We have to keep remembering that.

If Pelosi stands up and tells the country "Bill Jefferson has not been convicted of anything. He is innocent until proven guilty." She will echo what, I think, a lot of people think:

Bill Jefferson's bad press is political jockeying-for-position.

I'm not perfect either. I'm sure all have "big bucks in the freezer" that would make us look bad, but not ruin our reputation.

Anthony Palmer said...

I am inclined to agree with you, but here's the problem:

The Republicans can keep beating this same old drum and it will eventually generate coverage in the news media. The general public might not know so much about Jefferson's legal status. They DO, however, know that "this is the crooked congressman with all the money in his freezer."

Should there be any further legal developments, that will only bring Jefferson and his new committee membership back into the spotlight.

So while Jefferson's reassignment might be okay legally and maybe even okay ethically (after all, he IS innocent until proven guilty, right?), it might be a foolish move politically. Also, if Jefferson remains on a minor committee, he won't be able to deliver as much for his constituents and they may finally vote him out of office for good in 2008 due to his ineffectiveness.