Mired with accusations and indictments of secret deals and uncouth associations, the congressional elephant is dirty. With Tom DeLay's recent announcement that he will not seek reinstatement as House majority leader, one question defines the race to replace him: Who can best handle the scrub brush?
Acting majority leader Roy Blunt of Missouri claims to hold the bulk of support among the House's 231 Republicans. But Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) show no signs of dropping from the race before the anonymous balloting on Feb. 2.
That internal GOP vote, the kind typically ignored by the public, falls two days after President George W. Bush is slated to deliver his State of the Union address. Such timing lumps the selection of a new majority leader with party efforts to kick off the run-up to November's elections. Indeed, Messrs. Blunt, Boehner, or Shadegg likely hold more power to project a cleaned-up party image than a president still under heavy political fire for domestic wiretapping of those phoned by foreign terror suspects.
But the pool of majority leader candidates also contains some measure of grime-whether merely perceived or otherwise. Mr. Blunt's campaign committees have substantially funded a firm linked to Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud, and income tax evasion.
In a merciless political stunt, Mr. Boehner's allies distributed a flier outlining Mr. Blunt's "efforts on behalf of Jack Abramoff and his Indian gaming clients." Supporters of the Missouri representative fired back, deriding Mr. Boehner's penchant for partying.
Beyond his proclivity to merrymaking, Mr. Boehner has also tied his name to some unethical political dealings during his career. In 1995, he handed out checks on the House floor from tobacco lobbyists to fellow congressmen as they considered whether to end a tobacco subsidy.
Mr. Boehner has since apologized for the action and helped reform House rules to prevent others from repeating his mistake. But some Republicans wonder whether even a hint of past scandal is too much for someone charged with representing the GOP's return to transparency and integrity.
Mr. Shadegg is banking on such concerns, having charged into the race late with very little comparable political baggage. The Arizona conservative has sought to distinguish himself as the clean candidate, suggesting his opponents' "level of taint" is dramatically different than his own.
"We have an agenda for the American people of smaller government, and lower taxes, and less regulation, and more freedom," he said recently during a Fox News Sunday interview with Chris Wallace. "But the American people aren't paying any attention to that agenda right now, because we haven't engaged in the reform that we promised."
Mr. Shadegg entered Congress with the class of 1994, which campaigned on a promise to reform and won the first Republican House majority in 40 years. He has remained largely true to that promise, even upsetting his colleagues on occasion for refusing to support bills that included pork-barrel spending. He now vows to help squelch congressional "earmarking," the common practice of latching pork onto legislation in the final hour.
Reps. Blunt and Boehner promise similar reforms and are the more proven candidates in political maneuvering. Mr. Blunt, who has climbed the House ranks quickly since his arrival in 1997, worked as Mr. DeLay's right-hand man beginning in 1999, learning how to gather votes and wield majority power. Mr. Boehner worked closely with Newt Gingrich to bring Republicans to power in 1994 and became House GOP conference chairman in 1995, developing mutually beneficial relationships with business lobbyists.
But the perceived potential for future ethics violations may trump considerations of experience-and personal loyalties. With Democrats needing a net gain of only 15 seats in November to reclaim a majority, House Republicans will vote for the candidate most likely to aid their reelection bids. In a country growing weary of scandals real and perceived, Mr. Clean may be the safest choice.