With Dems in Hot Seat, the Times Undergoes a Sudden, Cynical Softening on Ethics Charges

Is the Times softening on congressional corruption when it's committed by Democrats? Tuesday's A1 "news analysis" by Eric Lipton and Eric Lichtblau, "A Capital Abuzz With Ethics," raised the question.

One can't fault the front-page placement, but you can surely question the reporters' cynical shrugs of disdain in the face of apparent congressional corruption, an issue the Times found quite sobering and hammered the G.O.P. on relentlessly (i.e. Rep. Mark Foley) as the 2006 elections approached.

In the bazaar that is Capitol Hill, there is nothing surprising about lawmakers' doing favors for campaign donors or intervening with federal agencies on behalf of constituents or friends.

So why are Representatives Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, and Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, facing the rare spectacle of public ethics trials for actions their defenders say are just business as usual in Congress?

The charges reflect, in part, a heightened sensitivity in Washington to indiscretions by members of Congress. The House ethics committee, which has brought the charges, has come under fire for failing to hold lawmakers accountable in previous investigations.

Both cases also involve personal causes - for Ms. Waters, the financial investments of her husband, and for Mr. Rangel, an education center set up in his name in New York. With their integrity under attack after widespread news reports, Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters are fighting the charges instead of simply accepting a modest punishment.

For good measure, the reporters threw in an older ethics case involving Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada:

As a result, Washington has suddenly become fixated on ethics issues, including the continuing investigation of Senator John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada, who has been accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators at the request of a former aide, whose wife had an affair with the senator.

The Times quoted no one in support of tougher ethical rules, and ignored House Speaker's Nancy Pelosi' famous promise in 2006 to "drain the swamp" of corruption in Washington and run "the most ethical Congress in history" with Democrats in charge, treating the enforcement of the rules as a cynical political ploy lacking true moral impact.

Robert K. Kelner, an ethics lawyer in Washington who is involved in Senator Ensign's case, called the charges against Mr. Rangel and Ms. Waters perhaps overblown.

"This is the committee's way of showing that it is alive and well, notwithstanding the criticism directed at it," Mr. Kelner said. "Here's an opportunity where we can bare our teeth."

Whatever the explanation, lawmakers in Washington are noticing the crackdown, their lawyers said.