When Mark Foley resigned his US House seat Friday, it was because ABC News questioned the Florida Republican about his sexually explicit communications with former House pages. That it was the media and not House investigators at work points again to the failure of Congress to police itself.
"Again," because Congress has failed multiple times this year to clean up its act. In January, mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges relating to influence peddling on the Hill. Both the Senate and House got all exercised about this and promised serious lobbying reform. They drew up two bills. After the outrage died, so did the bills.
The self-serving, pay-to-play relations between lobbyists and lawmakers is a breach of trust between voters and their representatives. And in this age of terrorism, so is the fact that two years after the 9/11 commission warned Congress to reform its scattered committee structure and streamline oversight of terror-related issues, there's been little follow-through. A lawmaker's patch of committee turf, it seems, is still more important than the rest of America.
Now it looks as if Congress has fallen into the self-interest trap again. When it came to light months ago that Mr. Foley in 2005 sent an "overfriendly" e-mail to a 16-year-old boy who was a former House page, or messenger, Republicans handled the boy's complaint internally and quietly. The House clerk and the GOP congressman in charge of the House Page Board instructed Foley to cease the communication. Neither the bipartisan Page Board nor the Ethics Committee was informed. Unbelievably Foley stayed on as co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus.
House leaders say they didn't know about earlier sexually explicit Internet and cellphone communications to former pages until last week. Now, after a request from GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois on Sunday, the FBI is investigating.
But why didn't alarm bells go off, even from an "overfriendly" e-mail? Internet sexual solicitation is a huge concern of parents. Those who send their high schoolers to the selective page program don't expect them to become sexual targets for lawmakers. A little digging would have turned up the earlier e-mails, which circulated among former pages.
Over the years, sexual scandal has tarred elected officials in both parties, and so has financial impropriety. Yet this year's been a doozy for Republicans, with three ethics- related House resignations so far. Last month, the House could only muster a very weak rule change aimed at pork-barrel spending. The Senate has yet to adopt a bill allowing for easily viewed and promptly disclosed campaign donations. Last month, however, the president did sign a law to make public a database of federal grants, contracts, and loans.
A few months ago, Speaker Hastert complained that an FBI raid on a Democrat's office (after cash was found in his home freezer) violated congressional independence. Now he's encouraging the FBI to look at lawmakers who may have known about the Foley communications. Has he just woken up to what's clear to the nation – that Congress seems incapable of reforming itself?