When the ethics cat is away, the greediest congressmen will play.
If there is any doubt of that, look at the ethical issues that are piling up while the House Ethics Committee is bogged down in a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over the committee's ability to function as an honest arbiter.
When Congress convened in January, the Republican leadership, without consulting the Democrats or even other Republicans, rammed through a set of rules changes that basically made it easy to kill ethics investigations. This was an obvious sop to House GOP Leader Tom DeLay, who had been spanked three times by the committee.
Independent Republicans on the committee were replaced with DeLay loyalists and changes were made in rules that had historically allowed the committee to function in even when votes were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
It only took a few months for even the most loyal of DeLay's supporters to realize that an accommodation had to be reached. The leadership backed off in one important area, agreeing to return to the rule that allowed an investigation of a member's behavior continue even if the vote on the committee was evenly split.
A new disagreement
But in the meantime a staffing dispute between the chairman, Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and the ranking Democrat, Alan Mollohan, W.Va., had arisen and the committee was again deadlocked. It is time for Hastings and Mollohan to hammer out an agreement and get the committee back to work. Not only are there new ethics issues regarding DeLay that demand attention, but there are very troubling accusations regarding the behavior of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California.
Cunningham, a powerful defense appropriator, has developed a disturbingly cozy relationship with Mitchell Wade, president of the defense contracting firm MZM Inc.
It turns out that Cunningham sold his Del Mar, Calif., home to Wade in November 2003 for $1.7 million. Wade put the house back on the market shortly after buying it, and took a $700,000 loss on it a year after the initial sale. It's hard to believe the house was worth $1.7 million, given that San Diego has one of the hottest housing markets in the country, and someone would have to try to lose money on most real estate deals.
About the same time that Wade bought Cunningham's house, little-known MZM Inc., which is based in Washington D.C., began receiving millions of dollars in government contracts.
Back at the marina
Now it turns out that while in Washington, Cunningham is living on a yacht loaned to him by Wade. The congressman's office says it's a temporary arrangement, entered into out of necessity when Cunningham's own boat began extensive renovations.
We can only hope that the renovations aren't being performed by members of Cunningham's staff while on the federal clock. We'd think that any congressman paying attention to the trials and tribulations of the Mahoning Valley's James A. Traficant Jr. would know that is out of bounds.
Speaking of Traficant, we had no problem with his going to prison after he was convicted of accepting goods, services and cash in exchange for constituent service and of using federal employees to do private work at his farm and on his houseboat.
Based on reports available so far, we don't see how Cunningham's transgressions could be seen as any less serious. And perhaps the justice department agrees. Cunningham acknowledge Tuesday that he has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in California.
In the meantime, it is important for the ethics committee to get back to work, investigating Cunningham, DeLay and any other members of Congress who appear to be wandering from the straight and narrow path of ethical behavior.