It may have been the shrewdest thing Nancy Pelosi ever said. In the fall of 2006, riding a wave of popular disgust at the ethical lapses of the then-Republican congressional majority, Pelosi mused, "Maybe it will take a woman to clean up the House."
Cheeky and pointed, the line captured the sense that the House had run out of control and it was time for something different a Democratic House run by the first-ever woman speaker, wielding an exacting broom.
According to exit polls, 41 percent of voters said "corruption and scandals in government" were extremely important to their vote in 2006, more than said that about the Iraq War, the economy or illegal immigration. More than anything else, Democrats had a mandate for clean government untainted by lifestyle-enhancing freebies and the lobbyist- driven "favor factory."
Enter Charlie Rangel, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Allegedly unbeknownst to him, he had the misfortune to have his Caribbean vacations paid for by corporations. After an admonishment by the House's ethics committee, Rangel lamented that this was just his rotten luck, undone by unscrupulous staffers conniving to get him free beach time on Antigua and St. Maarten.
Rangel missed all the correspondence about the trips, just like he missed the half of his net worth he failed to note on financial-disclosure forms. Such a careless person typically doesn't become rich (or the chairman of a major congressional committee), but Rangel amassed up to $500,000 each in two undisclosed checking accounts. Poor Charlie, bumbling his way into a lifestyle of the rich and famous.
It doesn't take much discernment to recognize Rangel as a stereotypical congressional baron who must cut corners to make his net income cover his gross habits, to paraphrase Errol Flynn. Surely if Rangel had seen a memo explaining how he'd have to pay for his own Caribbean getaways and JetBlue has great bargains this time of year, he'd have taken notice.
This is a mess ideally suited for Nancy Pelosi's broom, if it weren't stashed in a closet alongside Barack Obama's promises to curtail earmarks drastically and to broadcast sensitive legislative negotiations. Pelosi pleads for patience for Rangel, who's still being investigated in many other matters and, after all, has not done "something that jeopardized our country in any way." This means Rangel will only step down as chairman after exacting the maximum possible political embarrassment.
It's never easy to rebuke a well-liked senior member of Congress. That's why maintaining a reformist spirit requires a purifying fire. Pelosi never had it. She merely threw a veneer of goo-goo rhetoric over the same Old Bulls. She wanted to make the late John Murtha majority leader immediately after the 2006 election, despite his pork empire built on earmarks-for-donations.
The fact is Nancy Pelosi is too busy nationalizing health care to do house-work. Obama, too, has been reluctant to disturb Congress so long as it's working to spread the tentacles of government. At any given moment, this calculation looks expedient. Ultimately, it's short-sighted for two reasons.
One, turning the rascals out is practically national sport. As far back as 1816, two-thirds of the members of Congress retired or were defeated for re-election after voting themselves a pay raise. Historian Daniel Walker Howe calls it a "sad end for one of the most talented American Congresses." Less-talented Congresses are always on the verge of the same end if they run afoul of America's engrained suspicion of its lawmakers.
Two, it's very difficult to build sentiment for greater government unless Washington is above reproach. Part of the political genius of the New Deal was that it was administered relatively cleanly. At the recent health-care summit, President Obama objected to Republicans mentioning his plan and Washington in the same breath, since Washington is so unpopular. That will never change so long as influential committee chairmen doze on the beach on the corporate dime without consequence.