This fall, Democrats are defending far more Senate seats than the Republicans, making the retention of their slender hold on the upper house highly questionable. Any opportunity to knock off a GOP incumbent is a matter of life for the Democrats’ hopes of keeping at least half of Congress in their possession. That has made the battle for Nevada’s Senate seat one of the most watched races in the country, especially because challenger Rep. Shelley Berkley has been widely seen as a formidable threat to the future of Republican incumbent Dean Heller.
So the news that the House Ethics Committee has voted unanimously to launch an investigation of the charge she used her political clout to help her husband’s business is especially damaging not just to her ambitions but to the Democrats’ hopes of remaining in charge of the Senate next year. Given the snail’s pace at which the committee generally works, which makes it unlikely she could be cleared before November, this could be a fatal blow to her candidacy and make it that much harder for her fellow Nevadan Harry Reid to hold on to the post of majority leader. But while the political effects of this case may gladden conservatives, this is not a case of venality as much as it is one that raises questions about whether it is possible for a member of Congress to have a spouse involved in any business that interacts with the government.
The issue, which was the subject of a New York Times feature last September, involves the federal decertification of a hospital transplant center in Nevada due to organizational disarray that is believed to have led to a patient’s death. Berkley is accused of materially aiding the financial interests of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, who operates a chain of dialysis centers in Nevada as well as a nephrology practice at the hospital in question. While it can be argued that Berkley should have recused herself from any involvement in the issue of federal regulation of this business, the Democratic congresswoman wasn’t the only member to intervene. The entire Nevada delegation including Heller (who replaced John Ensign in the Senate after he resigned in disgrace last year) spoke up in order to keep the state’s only transplant unit as well as the dialysis centers.
Were she not married to Lehrner, no one would give a second thought to Berkley’s involvement in the issue. But her efforts to oppose budget cuts which would have affected his business and which were opposed by a political action committee he heads does raise ethical questions.
Berkley, who also has a well-earned reputation as one of the most ardent supporters of Israel in the Congress, can be said to have profited by her actions — or at least her husband did. But that is not the same thing as having stolen taxpayer dollars for double-billing or directing government business to a shady or bankrupt business (think the Obama administration’s federal loan guarantees to Solyndra). While conflict of interest regulations are there for a reason, the open nature of her advocacy for this cause means there was no criminal conspiracy or criminal intent. Those eager to make political hay about this should remember that being the champion of doctors who serve kidney patients in need is not quite the same thing as throwing your weight around on behalf of some oil contractor or other special interest.
This means that while Berkley may not be a victim, she is certainly no villain. Whatever the ultimate ruling of the House committee, the damage to Berkley probably cannot be undone. This should serve as a warning to all members of the House and the Senate as well as to those thinking about going into public service that if they have a spouse involved in business they should probably think about finding another line of work. Such lines may have to be drawn for the sake of preventing real cases of corruption, but this also means that more good people will be driven out of public life. And that’s not good for either party.