Politics & Policy

How to Lose, Don Young’s Way

A lesson of 2006: Purge now or pay later.

How can House Republican leaders stave off a rout in 2008? The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), responsible for electing Republican House members, had a pathetic $1.6 million in cash at the end of August. Republican retirements from the House continue to rack up, including several in vulnerable districts. The issues seem to be stacked against the GOP as Democrats exploit issues such as health care and the Iraq war.

There has been talk of a few fixes, including firing key NRCC staffers and returning to old fundraising programs. These steps may help, but House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) should consider another idea worth millions of dollars all on its own: Prune the dead branches in the caucus now.

Republicans need an ethical Housecleaning if they are ever to return to the majority again. This will require strong leadership and creativity. The real question is just how ruthless the reputedly non-confrontational Boehner can be when his legacy is on the line. Boehner will show his mettle by how he deals with two members currently under serious ethical clouds: Reps. Don Young (R., Alaska) and John Doolittle (R., Calif.).

It understates the case merely to say that corruption hurts the Republican image. It also affects something everyone in Washington understands — the bottom line. During the 2006 cycle, The NRCC spent $1.5 million trying to save former Rep. Don Sherwood (R., Pa.), whose mistress had accused him of trying to choke her. Sherwood’s refusal to quit — and Republicans’ failure to force him out — also cost the GOP his conservative northeast Pennsylvania district.

By refusing to step aside until very late in the process, former congressman and current federal inmate Bob Ney (R., Ohio) cost the NRCC more than $1 million when they tried in vain to save his seat from Democratic takeover. Rep. Charles Taylor (R., N.C.), who was both ethically and truth-challenged while in Congress (recall his unlikely explanation as to why he did not vote on CAFTA), cost the NRCC $1.5 million. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.), whose lingering ethics problems exploded with federal raids just before the 2006 election, cost the committee $3.6 million as he went down to defeat.

Disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R., Fla.) “unusual” behavior toward House pages had raised flags with Republican leaders and senior staff as early as 2002. When they failed to show him the door after more odd behavior came to their attention in 2006, Foley cost the committee $1.6 million directly, and millions more when his instant-message sex scandal soured the whole national political environment for the GOP.

These are only the most prominent examples of corruption, and they already add up to $9 million wasted because of tainted members — more than ten percent of the $81 million the NRCC spent in independent expenditures in 2006. That amount does not include the indirect effect that corruption had on the GOP image, nor the millions that Republican donors wasted in giving directly to tainted Republicans.

With respect to Reps. Young and Doolittle, two key items hit newspapers this week. First, 17-term Rep. Don Young, who is trailing a Democratic challenger for reelection, spent more campaign money on his own legal defense than he raised in the third quarter. Second, a fellow California Republican, back-bench conservative John Campbell, called on Doolittle not to seek reelection.

Both Young and Doolittle are currently subjects of federal investigations. Neither shows any indication he will step aside, and both are likely to lose their seats if they run for reelection. The feds raided Doolittle’s Virginia home earlier this year in connection with his ties to imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Unless defeated in a primary, he will almost certainly lose a 61-percent Bush district — about as safe a Republican House seat as there is.

Young, the powerful author of the 2006 transportation bill, is far more formidable for his seniority. He was responsible for earmarking funds in the 2005 Transportation Bill for the Knik Arm Bridge (also known as “Don Young’s Way”), which if built could massively boost his son-in law’s property value. Young is accused of altering another earmark in that bill after it passed Congress and before it was signed by President Bush. The illicit change, now opposed by the Florida congressman it was supposed to benefit, would help a major Florida contributor to Young’s campaign. Watchdog groups are trying, probably in vain, to make the House Ethics committee open an investigation.

That may seem like enough to sink Young, but the federal investigation into his dealings comes on top of that. It pertains to an Alaskan contractor whose employees have given Young $180,000 in campaign cash since 1993. The CEO of that firm, Veco, has pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators and testified that his company “donated” labor for Sen. Ted Stevens’s (R) home-remodeling project.

Republican leaders have tools for forcing out problematic members. At the very least, they can pressure or even force them off committees (Doolittle had to step down from the appropriations committee in April, but Young retains all of his posts). But they can do more. If they dare, they can open ethics investigations against their own members, call for their resignation, or even expel them from the caucus.

If party leaders have traditionally shuddered at such measures, they have been even more hesitant to support primary challenges against incumbents. But given what is at stake, why should even that threat be off the table? In Sherwood’s case, he needed only a small push. His no-name opponent in the 2006 Republican primary spent less than $5,000 and took 46 percent of the vote. Had she won, she would today be a Republican congresswoman representing that heavily Republican district. Instead, the NRCC wasted $1.5 million, and must now spend even more to win back the seat.

House Republicans’ salvation will ultimately require that Leader Boehner flex his muscle and deal out some tough love. In the recent fight over the NRCC, he shied away from purging two staffers he believed to be hurting the party. But can he purge two congressmen who could hurt it so much more?

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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