#2: Republicans May be Better Off Avoiding the Candidate with an Ethics Albatross

According to a 1997 Washington Post article, Newt Gingrich was the second Speaker of the House to be charged with ethical violations. However, Gingrich became the first Speaker to be reprimanded by the House, because the previous Speaker charged with ethical violations resigned from Congress after an ethics investigation was launched against him based on a complaint filed by Gingrich.

The report produced by the House ethics committee was harsh in its assessment of Gingrich:

In looking at this conduct in light of all the facts and circumstances, the Subcommittee was faced with a disturbing choice. Either Mr. Gingrich did not seek legal advice because he was aware that it would not have permitted him to use a 501(c)(3) organization for his projects, or he was reckless in not taking care that, as a Member of Congress, he made sure that his conduct conformed with the law in an area where he had ample warning that his intended course of action was fraught with legal peril. The Subcommittee decided that regardless of the resolution of the … tax question, Mr. Gingrich’s conduct in this regard was improper, did not reflect creditably on the House, and was deserving of sanction.

The Subcommittee’s deliberation concerning the letters provided to the Committee centered on the question of whether Mr. Gingrich intentionally submitted inaccurate information…. 

The culmination of the evidence on this topic again left the Subcommittee with a disturbing choice. Either Mr. Gingrich intentionally made misrepresentations to the Committee, or he was again reckless in the way he provided information to the Committee concerning a very important matter….

As is noted above, the Subcommittee was faced with troubling choices in each of the areas covered by the Statement of Alleged Violation. Either Mr. Gingrich’s conduct in regard to the 501(c)(3) organizations and the letters he submitted to the Committee was intentional or it was reckless. Neither choice reflects creditably on the House. While the Subcommittee was not able to reach a comfortable conclusion on these issues, the fact that the choice was presented is a factor in determining the appropriate sanction. In addition, the violation does not represent only a single instance of reckless conduct. Rather, over a number of years and in a number of situations, Mr. Gingrich showed a disregard and lack of respect for the standards of conduct that applied to his activities. (“In the Matter of Representative Newt Gingrich: Report of the Select Committee on Ethics,” pp. 92-94)

It’s interesting to compare how bipartisan the Gingrich reprimand votes were compared to another Congressional proceeding that occurred the following year. 75% of the Republicans on the ethics committee voted to recommend that the House reprimand Gingrich. Of the Republicans in the full House who voted on the penalty against Gingrich, 88% voted to reprimand him and to charge him $300,000 to defray the costs of the ethics investigation. The following year, Gingrich helped lead the impeachment proceedings against Clinton, and those proceedings ended in a polarized partisan vote, with 100% of Senate Democrats eventually voting against the articles of impeachment. On the other hand, it is notable that most of Gingrich’s own party on both the ethics committee and in the full House felt it was appropriate to reprimand him.

According to a Washington Post article published the day after Gingrich was reprimanded,

House ethics committee members took pride in yesterday’s bipartisan resolution of the case. ‘We have proved to the American people that no matter how rough the process is, we can police ourselves, we do know right from wrong,’ said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who headed the investigative subcommittee that charged Gingrich.

Another Congressman (Mark Sanford, R-SC) said that he would not have voted for Gingrich to be Speaker of the House had he known about the issues raised by the ethics committee’s report:

The gray got grayer when you read the report…. When I think of my three boys and what kind of example I want to set for them for leadership in this country, gray is not the example.

To Gingrich’s credit, he did admit to wrongdoing and accepted the penalty imposed on him:

I was overconfident, and in some way, naive. With deep sadness, I agree. I did not seek legal counsel when I should have in order to ensure clear compliance with all applicable laws, and that was wrong. Because I did not, I brought down on the people’s house a controversy which could weaken the faith people have in their government…. In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee, but I did not intend to mislead the committee.

I accept responsibility for this, and I deeply regret it.

I did not seek personal gain, but my actions did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives.

Gingrich has claimed that “one of the biggest advantages I have as a good conservative, with a clear record of conservatism; I think that I could in fact draw a sharp contrast with Obama.”  Looking at the policy positions of Gingrich and Romney, it’s not clear to me how Gingrich could draw a better contrast with Obama than Romney could. However, when it comes to Gingrich’s behavior, it’s quite likely that Democrats would succeed in  drawing a sharper contrast between Gingrich and Obama than they would be able to draw between Romney and Obama. That may, in fact, be one of Gingrich’s largest liabilities; namely, that he opens the door to the wrong kind of sharp contrast. Gingrich’s history may just provide too much easy cannon fodder for Obama’s campaign staff.