Maxine’s Goes on the De(O)ffense

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Rep. Maxine Waters went on the offense with her defense against three ethics charges Friday morning with a 90-minute Capitol Hill press conference.

Waters move to try her case in the court of public opinion comes three days after former Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel took to the floor in a defiant speech defending himself against 13 alleged breeches of House rules. Both members are expected to have rare open ethics trials before the Committee on Standards and Official Conduct this fall. The leadership has remained noticeably mum on both cases, only saying they trust the process and that they hoped members would stick to the process: ie, don’t go off holding press conferences and speeches on the floor — a message that seems to have gotten a bit lost.

Though, Waters’s presentation was calmer and more professional, including a power point presentation by her chief of staff and grandson Mikael Moore, its purpose was similar to Rangel’s rant. “They have lost the support of your colleagues in the Democratic Caucus. They have two choices, go quietly with dignity (they were given that choice long ago) or go with lots of sound and fury, appealing to the court of public opinion,” says James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential studies. “It is politically risky and shows they are desperate.”

Rangel and Waters’s intent was enter the long August recess with the story spinning their way. The results were mixed: Rangel did himself more harm than good with his rambling, petulant rant. Waters poked some credible holes in the timeline of events surrounding her case.

She’s accused of violating three House rules relating to a meeting she set up for a minority banking association with the Treasury Department. Waters’ husband is a former board member and current stockowner of the lead bank representing the association, which spent much of the meeting asking for a bailout. Ultimately, the Treasury granted the bank, OneUnited, $12 million. Waters says that the meeting she set up – which she did not attend — was strictly for the association and that, a few weeks later when it became clear OneUnited wanted a bailout, she immediately referred the matter to House Banking Chairman Barney Frank. Previous media reports put her meeting with Frank before the Treasury meeting, but Waters insisted the meeting was much later, noting that Tarp was discussed and Tarp had not existed in early September, 2008.

Still, the timing couldn’t be worse. “Rangel and Waters mainly care about their own standing in their own districts, and the backing of their closest colleagues in the CBC encourages them. There’s no law against it, but this approach won’t get Rangel and Waters into the next edition of “Profiles in Courage” either,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Of course, their colleagues consider it selfish. It may cost Democrats, just when the party needs some breaks during the compressed general election schedule.”

This is a very short election season: between Labor Day on Sept. 6 and the election on Nov. 2, it’s a sprint. Add to that not one but two potential ethics trials, which will keep the topic before the public eye right up and possibly through the elections. Indeed, though Waters case might wait – and she’s in no danger of it affecting her reelection – she’s openly called for the committee to hold her trial before the elections. When asked if she was worried about how this might affect her vulnerable colleagues, Waters said that “any member who finds themselves in this situation would want it resolved asap.” At the same time, she wasn’t shy about having an ulterior motive: to highlight what she considers a broken ethics system. “This is not only about defending myself,” Waters said before taking questions, “but the process, should the ethics committee be changed?”

Yes, every member has a right to defend themselves and see the charges dealt with as quickly as possible. But with the fate of the majority potentially in the balance, if one might wait till after the elections why wouldn’t they? But while Rangel is legitimately fighting for his political life, Waters’s insistence on pressing forward now is not winning her any friends.