The Democrats and William Jefferson

Nancy Pelosi has demanded a lot of resignations in her day. Is it time for another?


Tim Grieve
May 23, 2006 7:58PM (UTC)

Over the course of the past couple of years, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for the resignations of Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and Tom DeLay, and she has cheered when FEMA Director Michael Brown and Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham decided to step down from their posts.

So what about Rep. William Jefferson?

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Pelosi has said previously that the House Ethics Committee should investigate the dealings of the Louisiana Democrat, but she has stopped short of calling for his resignation -- even in the wake of a report that Jefferson was caught on tape taking $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant as part of an alleged bribery scheme.

While Jefferson hasn't been charged with any crime yet, neither has Rumsfeld or Rove -- at least, as far as we know -- and DeLay hadn't been charged when Pelosi started calling for his resignation back in 2004. And while Jefferson insisted Monday that there are "two sides to every story," we're with James Carville on this one: If there's another "side of the story for a congressman having $90,000 of cash in his freezer," we have a hard time imagining what it might be.

As the New York Times reports today, Democrats in Congress are trying to distance themselves from Jefferson even as they push the "culture of corruption" frame on the Republicans. "They are different scales," Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tells the Times. "One is a party outlook and operation; the other is an individual's action. They have institutional corruption."

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It may be a fair distinction; the ethical and legal issues surrounding Jefferson and West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan appear to be single-politician problems, while the questions involving Jack Abramoff, Brent Wilkes, Dusty Foggo, Bob Ney, Tom DeLay and the like have tentacles that weave through the GOP. That said, wouldn't the Democrats' attempts to distinguish themselves be a whole lot more convincing if they were demanding publicly that Jefferson either explain himself or step down from office?

Yes, there are political concerns involved. As the Times notes, Pelosi passed over Jefferson for a leadership job back in 2002, and she probably doesn't want to be seen as piling on now. Nor, apparently, does she want to risk alienating members of the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whose members may be skeptical -- and understandably so -- when the FBI starts investigating African-American politicians.

There are also constitutional concerns; in a rare bit of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats alike are making an issue of the separation-of-powers concerns raised by the FBI's Saturday night search of Jefferson's office in the Rayburn House Office Building. Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Monday that as far as he could tell, the Justice Department has "never found it necessary" to "cross this separation of powers line" before, and that he saw nothing in the Jefferson case to warrant the FBI's doing so this time.

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If all of the evidence against Jefferson had come from the Saturday night search, there might be good reason for Pelosi and her fellow Democrats to take a stand against the intrusion by standing with Jefferson regardless of his guilt or innocence. But that's not how this has played out. If the FBI is to be believed, Jefferson took $100,000 in an alleged bribery scheme almost a year ago. The FBI says that it found most of the money in Jefferson's freezer a few days later. That's either the truth or it isn't. If it isn't, and if the Democrats are serious about pursuing the "culture of corruption" argument, Jefferson had better do some explaining fast. If it is -- or if Jefferson can't or won't explain how it isn't -- then maybe it's time for Pelosi to show that Democrats really are different from the Republicans they want to replace.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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