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March 7, 2006

Conyers' Ethics Troubles Explode

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The latest ethics flap in Washington exploded last week on the pages of the Capitol Hill publication The Hill. It involves veteran Michigan Democrat and would-be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers. Two former staffers allege a pattern of corruption by Conyers, self-proclaimed "Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus," including forcing them to work on several state and local political campaigns while on his congressional payroll and allowing a senior staff counsel to conduct her private law practice out of his office.

Also among the charges is that Conyers required his staff to care for his two young boys, including providing tutoring services to Conyers' elder son while he attended a posh private school in Bloomfield Hills. The school "Little John" Conyers attends is the Cranbrook School. According to its Web site, tuition at Cranbrook runs a cool $17,880 for grades 1-5, $19,280 for middle school, and $21,730 for high school. Parents who send their kids to board at Cranbrook must cough up more than $30,000.

Yet Conyers is a longstanding opponent of any form of school choice for low-income children. At a "Stand Up for Public Schools" rally a few years back, Conyers decried educational choice as a "scheme" which "will only harm our public schools" and pointed instead to the sort of "real" school reforms drawn from the educational unions' playbook - teacher training, reduced class size, and school construction. "It is vital," he said then, "for parents, educators, and community leaders to join together to strengthen Detroit's public schools."

Unless, of course, you can afford to send your child to The Cranbrook School.

Polls Apart: The mood among Washington's Republicans these days is sour and grows worse with the release of each new national poll. A recent CBS poll pegged the president's approval rating at an all-time low of 34%. For Republicans, however, that was the good news. The approval rating for Congress stood at an abysmal 28%.

Chief among the Republicans' concerns is the slow but steady rise in the level of frustration among their political base. The CBS survey, for example, found that, while Bush retains at least one pocket of relatively strong support (Republicans still approve of his performance by a margin of 72% to 22%), the Republican-controlled Congress seems to have alienated everyone. More Republicans (59%) actually give Congress a thumbs-down these days than do Democrats (55%), while disapproval among Independents has soared to 68%.

Bush's 72% level of support among Republicans is low by historical standards. Other polling organizations confirm this erosion of support. Gallup, for example, found that until March 2005 Republican support for President Bush routinely exceeded 90%. But then a trickle of Republicans began turning on the president, with the latest Gallup survey (conducted before the Dubai ports deal became news) placing Bush's support among Republicans at the all-time low of 79%.

Most Congressional Republicans would trade their favorite earmarks for an approval rating of 79%. Indeed, shedding a few thousand earmarks may be just what the doctor ordered. According to Gallup, the latest congressional approval rating, at 25%, is only two points higher than where it stood on the eve of the historic 1994 elections. "I'm tired," one conservative House member recently confided to his colleagues, "of being yelled at by the same folks who sent us here."

Congressional Republicans have, at best, four months to turn things around before the 2006 political season overwhelms all else. Low approval ratings shouldn't deter them from thinking bold thoughts and moving the sort of aggressive conservative legislation that will excite their political base.

After all, the approval rating for Congress was stuck around 30% throughout the last serious effort to reduce federal spending and lower taxes. Americans were downright hostile toward former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his determined band of GOP revolutionaries precisely while they were outmaneuvering Bill Clinton and winning approval of the historic 1997 budget agreement. That deal lowered the top capital gains rate to 20%, created the $500 tax credit for children and the Roth IRA, and reduced federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars. The economy flourished and we enjoyed an all-too-brief period of fiscal sanity, the loss of which appears to be a major explanation for the GOP's current woes.

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Human Events Online

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