The House quickly approved a Democratic motion that makes an ethics investigation mandatory when a member is indicted, then okayed a Republican motion to refer Jefferson's case to the committee to see if he should be expelled.
The vote was overwhelming on the Democratic motion: 387-10, with 15 members voting "present" and 20 not voting. Of the 25 voting either "nay" or "present", 16 were Democrats and nine were Republicans.
Of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, by the way, only Lacy Clay and John Conyers voted "nay", while three voted "present" and five didn't vote (including Jefferson).
The vote on the Republican motion was only a little closer: 373-26, with 13 "present" and the same 20 members not voting. 13 members of the CBC voted "nay"; three voted "present" and the same five didn't vote.
One of the CBC members voting "present" in both cases was Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the chairwoman of the ethics committee. She and other members of the committee mostly recused themselves from both votes.
So despite concerns that the CBC would try to protect Jefferson, a strong majority of the caucus supported both measures.
As I've said before, the Republican effort is premature, driven as it is by the idea that a simple indictment should lead to expulsion. But the motion merely asks the ethics panel to examine the case and decide if Jefferson should be expelled, so it's not a big problem as is. I imagine the panel will decide "no" unless truly damning evidence emerges against Jefferson in the meantime.
ALLOWING OUTSIDE COMPLAINTS
Separately -- and to more resistance -- the Democratic leadership is pushing a rules change that would let outsiders file ethics complaints against members. Currently only members can file complaints.
That particular rule, by the way, was introduced by the Republican-led House in 1997 after Speaker Newt Gingrich was slapped with a $300,000 fine (to be fair, Democrats supported it, too). It was accompanied by an unwritten "ethics truce" that produced a truly notable result: Only two ethics complaints have been filed in the last 10 years, the most recent in 2004, when Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, broke the truce by filing a complaint against Tom DeLay (the other was filed by former Rep. Bob Barr in 2001).
The proposal -- which has not yet been presented to Republicans -- has some House members worried about being inundated by a wave of politically motivated complaints. That's a legitimate concern, but it ignores the Senate, where outsiders are allowed to file complaints without notable hardship for senators. A simple screening process would help weed out frivolous complaints from genuine ones.
CALLS FOR RESIGNATION
Meanwhile, The New Orleans Times-Picayune has called on Jefferson to resign, as have some freshmen Democrats. And a judge froze Jefferson's assets to prevent him from spending or hiding potentially illicit gains.
THE MONEY PROBLEM
If Jefferson truly is innocent, he should stick it out. But if he's guilty -- as seems very likely -- he should resign and spare himself and his party the embarassment. Trouble is, he's not a wealthy man: he may be in a situation where he needs his Congressional salary in order to pay the bills as well as expected legal fees. That doesn't affect the moral dimension, of course, but it may present him with a practical dilemma.
ethics, Jefferson, politics, midtopia