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Sins of Omission

October 18, 2006

By Howard Husock

His fate has been overshadowed by that of his colleague Mark Foley, but this past Friday saw Rep. Robert Ney of Ohio formally enter a guilty plea to corruption charges in relation to the schemes of lobbyist Jack Abramoff - the first member of Congress to do so.

The news brought to mind an encounter I had with him three years ago, an encounter that serves to remind that the sins of corruption are not only of commission - but of omission, as well. What Bob Ney didn’t do - including what he didn’t do on the two days when I testified before a congressional committee he chaired - was as important as the deeds to which he’s now pleaded guilty. The same might be said of the now-endangered Republican-controlled Congress.

Here’s the story. I had written a series of critiques of federal housing subsidy programs, including sharp criticisms of the federal housing voucher program known as Section 8 and of the public housing reconstruction program known as HOPE VI. In 2003, the Bush administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development was actually advancing modest proposals to curtail both these programs - and I was pleased and, yes, honored to be asked to testify on behalf of the administration. That meant testifying, that May and June, before something called the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, chaired by Mr. Ney.

I had testified before Congress before - but not so often that it felt routine to me. I worked hard to prepare remarks and to anticipate the likely ripostes from the famously aggressive liberal Democrats numbered among the minority on Mr. Ney’s subcommittee: Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, Mel Watt from Charlotte. I hoped I could somehow convince them that housing subsidies were actually not in the best interest of “working families,” including minority families, whom they claimed, of course, to represent.

Things, to put it mildly, did not work out that way. I was a minor figure testifying on a minor bill, of course - but to me, it felt a lot like what Clarence Thomas called a “high-tech” lynching. Ms. Waters all but called me a racist. Or as an account posted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition put it: “Several of the committee members, including Ms. Waters and Rep. Lydia Velazquez of New York made it clear to Mr. Husock that they found his testimony to be racially charged and offensive.”

Personal and sarcastic remarks were offered about my then-affiliation with Harvard University. On both occasions, the experience was thoroughly unpleasant - and Mr. Ney didn’t do a thing to intervene. Not one friendly question or supportive comment, notwithstanding the fact that it was his party that had invited me to testify.The Democrats were obstructionist, to be sure - but at least evinced interest in housing policy.

At the time, I assumed Mr. Ney’s behavior reflected political calculation: The bill was going nowhere, and it wasn’t worth investing his political capital in it. But it’s possible, we now know, that the truth may have been far worse. Instead of addressing housing policy, he may well have been scheming that very day to offer legislation or to insert statements in the Congressional Record on behalf of Mr. Abramoff’s clients - in exchange for (as per the Washington Post account) “campaign contributions, meals and luxury travel, sports tickets and gambling chips.” This by a man who, before entering politics, was an idealist: He’d taught English in Iran and was the only Farsi-speaking member of Congress. In other words, he might well have had a lot to offer his country in our present, difficult circumstances.

Such were his sins of omission. For it was his job to use his talents on his country’s behalf, to ask questions, to make sure at least a few Republican members were in the room, and to caution Ms. Waters to be civil to the witness (me).

More broadly, it was his job to seek to advance the causes the administration had identified, just as it was the job of the Republican Congress to take policy seriously - rather than ceding ground, time and again, whether on housing or Social Security or Medicare, to defenders of the status quo.The bill for which I testified was going nowhere, in other words, because Republicans lacked the interest and the courage to make it go somewhere.

Mr. Ney - who had been an idealist - played a small part in letting that happen. He hasn’t been prosecuted for that - but that’s the collateral damage to our democracy that corruption leaves in its wake.



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