Boehner should let Michael Grimm stay: Why embattled congressman shouldn't resign (if he stays out of jail)

Arguments that the Speaker should try to boot the felonious congressman are wrong-headed. Here's why

Published December 23, 2014 6:11PM (EST)

Michael Grimm             (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Michael Grimm (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Staten Island's Republican Rep. Michael Grimm is having The Problems. He will reportedly agree to a plea deal following his multi-count indictment over federal tax evasion charges from when he co-owned a restaurant, before serving in Congress. That could mean jail time and, if so, he will almost certainly resign. He said during the most recent campaign -- which he won while under indictment, that he would step down if he was "unable to serve." It is very difficult to serve from within the slammer.

The terms of the plea deal are still unknown but, if it doesn't include jail time, his congressional future is much more uncertain. He doesn't seem interested in resigning as long as he is physically able to serve, and there technically aren't any constraints that would bar him from doing so.

All eyes are on Speaker John Boehner now, and how far he's willing to go to force Grimm to resign. He could deny Grimm committee seatings, direct the NRCC not to give him any funds, and warn him that the House Ethics Committee may end up recommending his expulsion. Boehner, as Politico writes, has "historically had little tolerance for beleaguered lawmakers, even for those he considers personal friends. Boehner gives his colleagues plenty of rope, but he will yank it back if they cross the line." It's taken far less than a federal felony guilty plea for Boehner to exert his will, too. He successfully forced New York Rep. Chris Lee out on the very day that shirtless photos of him, sent to his not-wife, surfaced on the Internet. He "pushed former Indiana Rep. Mark Souder to resign when it came out that the congressman was having an affair with an aide," as Politico writes. "Cocaine Congressman" Trey Radel didn't last too long, either, after getting probation for trying to buy coke from an undercover cop.

Why does Boehner care so much? He seems to buy into the media conventional wisdom when it comes to members' extracurricular problems, whether it's with extraspousal relationships, drugs, the law, or some combination. The conventional wisdom here is that it would be an unwelcome "distraction" for Boehner heading into the 114th Congress, in which he'll have an expanded majority and a new Senate Republican majority to work with. That, were Grimm to keep showing up for work, it would taint the Republican party to have a felon loitering around within its conference. It could really hurt the "GOP brand" heading into a presidential electorate for a Republican member to face censure or expulsion from the Ethics Committee, etc.

Is that at all true? Are the problems here really anyone else's but Michael Grimm's to bear? Rep. Vance McAllister, the Lousiana congressman who ended up running for reelection after being caught on video making out with a staffer, ended up losing his primary, but there's no evidence that him sticking around hurt the rest of the Republican party in 2014. Rep. Charlie Rangel faced years of ethics problems and was eventually censured; Democrats went on to lose their House majority, but that had nothing to do with him. (Rangel is still in Congress, by the way.) Rep. William Jefferson's legal troubles in 2006 certainly didn't hurt the Democratic party in the midterms that year or the 2008 election.

Michael Grimm's problems are isolated to Michael Grimm. If the Republican party struggles in 2016, that will have absolutely nothing to do with the presence of Michael Grimm.

It's hardly clear, either, that if Grimm continued to serve and ran again in 2016 he'd lose. He just won reelection by more than a dozen percentage points with a 20-count indictment hanging over his head. (Partly because, according to Staten Island political observers, his opponent possessed the sentience of a rock.) If he enters a plea deal to one or two of those charges, and jail time isn't part of the sentence -- still very much a hypothetical! -- who's to say that he's a certain loser the next time around? Maybe the people of Staten Island like him and don't care that he cooked the books at his restaurant! We here at Salon Dot Com don't really see what there is to like about him, but it's not up to us.

What Michael Grimm chooses to do, in the event that he's "able to serve," doesn't seem like something that John Boehner needs to worry his pretty little head over. It can be, and should be, up to the voters to weigh the pros and cons for themselves.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell