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Short-Circuiting Ethics

The House Ethics Committee investigation of Rep. (and Ways & Means Committee chairman) Charlie Rangel has gotten a lot of attention recently. But there's a new development on the House ethics front that merits a closer look than it will probably receive, at least nationally.

Georgia Rep. Nathan Deal resigned his seat today, supposedly so he could concentrate on his gubernatorial campaign. But as a conservative blogger in the Peach State immediately noted, this makes zero political sense except as a way to short-circuit an ethics investigation of a state contract held by Deal that was about to get underway:

Deal is giving up the turnout advantage for being the sitting Congressman while the vote for his replacement takes place. GA law calls for a special election to replace Deal, and assuming the special election clears the field for the general election, having an unopposed incumbent running in the 9th when the primary vote for Governor takes place is a major campaign disadvantage for Deal.

So why would Deal take the hit on turnout?

The House Ethics Committee came down hard on Charlie Rangel last week. The next case up was to look at Deal’s use of his Congressional staff to protect a no-bid State contract here in Georgia. The House ethics committee was due to release their findings in this case any day. Deal’s resignation probably makes this go away.

So, Deal can campaign full time after tomorrow. If he’s no longer a member of Congress, he can’t be on the list of CREW’s most unethical Congressmen anymore.

This is interesting in no small part because Georgia's crowded Republican gubernatorial primary has become something of a quagmire of ethics issues. State insurance commissioner John Oxendine, who has been the front-runner in the polls for many months, is battling a variety of ethics charges relating to his fundraising efforts among the insurance companies he is responsible for regulating. And several other candidates are struggling to overcome the perception of a cover-up of a recent sex-with-a-utility-lobbyist scandal that ultimately forced state House Speaker Glenn Richardson from office.

It probably doesn't help that Richardson was replaced in the legislature in a special election last week by another Christian Right activist who has admitted an affair with his mother-in-law during his first wife's pregnancy.

The broader lesson is that Republicans are not exempt from the ongoing anti-government, anti-incumbent popular mood. While they certainly want to promote the idea that voters are only interested in punishing politicians who support economic stimulus funds or health care reform, there are other sins that do not bear exposure in the current climate. And wherever GOPers are entrenched in office, as they are in much of the Deep South, ethics problems are rarely too far beneath the surface.

UPDATE: Deal's resignation, currently slated to take effect on March 8, could affect the outcome of the expected razor-thin vote on health care reform, due to occur early in April. If nothing else, Deal's action should offset the decision last week by Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie's to resign his House seat for a gubernatorial campaign in Hawaii.