Isn’t it nice when a congressional leader does the right thing?
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington regularly condemns politicians for disgraceful conduct. It is a rare day when we can praise someone for getting it right. Today is one of those days.
Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) may be ranting to anyone who will listen that House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) forced him out of Congress because he voted against health care reform. But the truth is that Hoyer stood up against sexual harassment of staff members.
In early February, a top Massa aide sought advice from Hoyer about how to handle allegations that Massa had sexually harassed one of his male aides. Hoyer told him to turn the information over to the House Ethics Committee — or Hoyer would report the allegations himself. The staffer told the ethics panel and was interviewed twice by investigators, who also interviewed other top Massa aides.
Contrast Hoyer’s conduct with that of many members of Congress in another recent scandal. In October 2006, we learned that Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) had been preying on teenage pages. It came out that a number of members and top-level staff had known of Foley’s behavior at least as early as the previous spring, but had done nothing.
Even the head-in-the-sand House ethics committee could not avoid concluding that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), majority leader John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La), Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) all knew Foley had sent inappropriate emails to pages. But they failed to either attempt to stop Foley or refer this to the ethics panel.
The ethics committee found that neither the Boehner nor Reynolds, then head of the National Republican Campaign Committee, “showed any curiosity why a young former page would have been made uncomfortable by emails from Rep. Foley.” In yet another example of stupefying inaction, the Ethics Committee found no one had violated any House rule — not even that requiring members to “conduct themselves in a manner that reflects creditably on the House.”
The American public knew better, and was outraged to discover that elected leaders had put politics ahead of children’s safety. The Foley matter was just the last straw in the Republicans mounting ethics woes – after the fall of former majority leader Tom DeLay and the revelations about Jack Abramoff and his congressional cronies. Voters returned control of the House back to the Democrats that November.
Yet, this did not have to happen. If the Republican House leadership had acted when the emails surfaced, Foley could have been pushed out, but the seat would likely have remained Republican.
Hoyer’s conduct looks even more honorable considering that Massa’s district has a decided Republican tilt and the Democrats are facing an increasingly tight midterm election. Control of Congress may be up for grabs.
So, a cover-up – not without its own risks – might have been better for the Democratic majority. Nonetheless, when confronted with an ugly set of facts, the majority leader took appropriate action, setting in motion a chain of events likely to turn the seat Republican.
Since the harassment charges first came to light last week, Massa’s response has been nothing less than schizophrenic.
First, he adamantly denied the allegations admitting only to “salty language.” Last weekend, he confessed to wrongdoing and said he had no defense to the charges. He now claims he is being pilloried for making a single inappropriate remark while tousling a staffer’s hair at a wedding.
Incomprehensibly (yet creatively), he argues that he was set up because of his no vote on health care reform, which has turned him into the latest conservative darling. It defies credibility, however, to think one of Massa’s own aides would approach the majority leader of the House over nothing more than one suggestive remark.
Massa may have thought resigning would end this matter and save him and his family further embarrassment. Now that he claims to be the victim of a Democratic conspiracy, however, the ethics committee should immediately issue a report laying out all the facts.
Then maybe Hoyer can be recognized for refusing to allow outrageous congressional conduct go unchecked.
Melanie Sloan is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).