Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Mark Foley affair doesn't end with his hasty resignation. There will be aftershocks for a while to come. The Republican leadership wants to make this go away as quickly as possible, but, with less than six weeks till the election, it's unlikely that it will vanish fast enough for their tastes. Two questions stand out at the moment, has there been a cover-up and what does this mean for the election?

The short answer to the first question is "yes, there has been a cover-up." At least five Republicans in positions of responsibility knew about Foley's inappropriate* e-mail contacts with teenage pages and kept quiet about it. More revealing is the fact that some of them saw this more as a problem for their reelection campaign than as a problem of ethics.

House Majority Leader John Boehner told The Washington Post last night that he's known about this since last spring. Rep. John Shimkus, the head of the Page Board, knew about the problem since last fall, but thought it was enough to take Foley's word that the e-mails were innocent and he wouldn't do it again. Shimkus closed the matter, off the record, without notifying the only Democratic member of the board, Dale Kildee. Rep. Rodney Alexander, who sponsored one of the pages has known about Foley's inappropriate messages for "10 or 11 months." Alexander might have a partial excuse for his silence because, he claims, the parents of the page asked him to keep it quiet (assuming he didn't pressure them in that direction). On the other hand, he reported it to Tom Reynolds, chairman of the House Republican reelection committee, but not to the Ethics Committee. Reynolds says he notified Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in February, three months after first hearing about it. As Mustang Bobby observed, they must be getting their legal advice from the Vatican.

Let's be very clear what the issue is here: the Republican Party only became interested in investigating a possible sexual predator in their midst when it become a public embarrassment for them. As long as the only issue was the good of the victims, they couldn't have cared less. This is potentially a criminal issue. If Foley is charged with a crime, then anyone who was in on the cover-up should be charged with withholding evidence.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded an investigation into the Foley matter last night, but Boehner was able to stifle further public discussion by referring the matter to the Ethics Committee. Normally, this would seem like the right thing to do, but for several years the Ethics Committee has been a black hole of inaction. The committee is currently headed by Doc Hastings who, I'm sad to say, represents my mother's district in central Washington. Hastings is part of the class of 1994, the group of Republicans elected in the Gingrich revolution. For twelve years he has been a dependable Party soldier and the perfect picture of a do nothing rubber-stamp in hands of the Party leadership. Hastings was appointed to head the Ethics Committee two years ago to replace Joel Hefley, who had proven undependable to the party when he allowed Tom DeLay to be investigated and criticized.

Hastings will no doubt try to delay action on this till after the election and the Republican Party will take the position that they can't discuss the issue while an investigation is going on. Not only has there been a cover up for the last year, the Party's electoral hopes depend on their ability to keep the cover-up going for another six weeks.

This brings us to the second question: what does this mean for the election? It's clear that this potential scandal has figured into the Republican electoral strategy since they found out about it. At the beginning of the year, Foley was interested in campaigning for Bill Nelson's Senate seat. The Party pressured Foley not to run. At the time many observers believed that the Party was afraid that Foley's well known, but not publicly admitted, homosexuality would be a liability in conservative northern Florida. Foley's dropping out of the race opened the way for Katherine Harris to get the Party's nomination. Now it appears that the Party feared far more than homophobia in north Florida; they knew this skeleton was in Foley's closet (no pun intended) and had to know he couldn't stand the kind of extra scrutiny he would face in a Senate race. Even a Harris candidacy was better than that. Now they have both.

Under Florida law, it's too late to remove Foley's name from the ballot. However, the Republican party has seven days from the time of his resignation in which to name a new candidate. That candidate will get any votes cast for Foley in November. There will, no doubt, be considerable voter confusion over this. With the Republican Party facing the very real prospect of losing the House, they can't afford to surrender even one seat. They will get the highest profile candidate they can and pour a lot of money into the race.

Locally, the big question is, can even the most beloved candidate rise above the confusion and public revulsion associated with Foley in the short time they have. Nationally, the question is, who participated in the cover-up and how many of them will be dragged down by the scandal.

Five Republican congressmen knew about this, discussed it, and kept it quiet. I'm not sure if that technically rises to the level of criminal conspiracy, but it needs to be investigated by someone other than a tame committee run by Republican congressmen. We need to know if the national Republican Party or the Florida Republican Party knew about this and participated in the cover-up. This story should not be allowed to die, nor should it be scapegoated off on to the shoulders of Mark Foley alone. The entire Republican House leadership needs to explain itself. The voters deserve some answers before the election so they can decide if these are the types of people they want to represent them.

This is no longer just about Mark Foley and his victims.

Update: In the comments, Bryan corrects me on the Florida background.

* So far, only the first e-mail exchange published by ABC News is being discussed by the members Congress. Though creepy, inappropriate is probably the correct word for that particular exchange. The other exchanges, that have since been published, are explicit discussions of masturbation and, therefore, possible felonies. The Republican leadership hasn't admitted any prior knowledge of those exchanges. I'm not sure if any reporters have pushed them on this.

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