The press is reporting continued controversy -- and threats of a Congressional ethics compliant -- over the White House having previously offered a political appointment to Congressman Joe Sestak “in return” for his agreeing not to run in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary against Democratic (formerly Republican) Senator Arlen Specter. Whatever offer the White House made, it didn’t work, and Sestak went on to win the primary.
“Nice try” is what I would say to the White House. I would prefer if the White House were to stay out of Democratic primaries and focus on the tasks at hand. Then again, President Bush occasionally intervened in Republican primaries (including on behalf of Senator Specter in 2004). The less partisan politics in the White House the better (I would like to see the President abolish the White House Office of Political Affairs). This, however, is nothing new and it hardly rises to the level of a major ethics controversy.
The allegation that the job offer was somehow a “bribe” in return for Sestak not running in the primary is difficult to support. Sestak, if he had taken a job in the Administration, would not have been permitted to run in the
The job offer may have been a way of getting Sestak out of Specter’s way, but this also is nothing new. Many candidates for top Administration appointments are politically active in the President’s political party. Many are candidates or are considering candidacy in primaries. White House political operatives don’t like contentious fights in their own party primaries and sometimes suggest jobs in the Administration for persons who otherwise would be contenders. For the White House, this is usually a “win-win” situation, giving the Administration politically savvy appointees in the Executive Branch and fewer contentious primaries for the Legislative Branch. This may not be best for voters who have less choice as a result, and Sestak thus should be commended for saying “no”. The job offer, however, is hardly a “bribe” when it is one of two alternatives that are mutually exclusive.
Some have suggested that Sestak disclose the details of his discussions with the White House about an Administration job. Generally, such discussions are highly confidential, as employment negotiations often are (the Bush Administration took care to prevent leaks about potential appointees and we were usually successful). Although Sestak has no legal obligation of confidentiality, he should get permission from the White House before disclosing further details. If the White House were to consent to disclosure, that would be the exception rather than the rule. At this juncture, disclosure would probably help defuse the controversy, but this is a call for the White House to make.
Sestak’s Republican opponent in the Senate Race is Pat Toomey. Toomey was a college classmate of mine and I think highly of him; he is a strong candidate with good ideas about reducing the size of government. Joe Sestak also is a strong candidate, although in a very different way. Pennsylvanians should vote for Toomey or Sestak on the merits if they believe one or the other to be the most qualified for the Senate, not because dubious ethics allegations are made against an opponent or against the White House. Congress gives us plenty of genuine ethics concerns to worry about – particularly the role of campaign contributions which are de facto “bribes” (watch carefully what happens to the banking reform bill when it goes to House-Senate conference). Voters should not be distracted by media generated sideshows having little to do with what goes on in Washington.