Prompted by an undercover FBI sting that led to the indictment of five state lawmakers on bribery charges, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) called the Legislature into special session this month to tighten the state's ethics laws.
"On the topic of ethics, it is time for bold action," he told a joint session, attended by two of the indicted legislators, on Jan. 10. "Bold action is required. Prompt action is required. And visible action is required."
Bredesen's call for action comes as politicians across the country try to allay voter concerns about government corruption, an issue likely to come up in this year's elections for both state and federal posts.
Besides the bribe-taking allegedly exposed in the FBI's Operation Tennessee Waltz last year, scandals are making news in more than a dozen states at a time when key members of Congress and the Bush administration are under a cloud as well. Political experts caution, though, that the string of scandals won't necessarily translate into big changes in control of state or federal government on Election Day.
Among the reasons scandal will keep coming up this election year:
By calling a special session of the Tennessee Legislature, Bredesen is forcing lawmakers to tackle his ethics proposals before they get on to other legislative business or hit the campaign trail.
Ethics reforms such as those proposed by Bredesen commonly follow scandal - even though the conduct that caused the outrage was often clearly illegal in the first place. Shortly after his speech, Bredesen acknowledged as much. "This is not simply about bribery. That was illegal last year and 100 years ago. … It's a change of culture here," he said.
He said his proposals would end the "coziness" between legislators and lobbyists in Nashville by tightening up rules on cash campaign contributions and perks lawmakers can receive from lobbyists.
Republican Ron Ramsey, the Tennessee Senate's majority leader, backs far-reaching reforms like the ones Bredesen proposed. "What we're going to do is build a guardrail, so if you get off the road, you know you've gotten off the road. You had to jump across the guardrail to get out," he said.
Reassuring citizens that lawmakers are cleaning up government can help limit fallout at the polls.
Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, said the biggest effect might be that scandal-weary voters simply sit out this year's elections. "People are more likely to come out for someone than to vote against them. When people are just angry, they're more likely to stay at home," Pohlmann said.
In addition, he said only officials directly connected to the bribery investigation likely will face repercussions at the ballot box.
Of the four indicted state senators - all Democrats - two have stepped down and two remain in office. A Republican House member who was indicted pleaded guilty and resigned. In addition, following Bredesen's speech, a top GOP senator gave up his leadership post and said he would not seek re-election. The former caucus leader, Sen. Jeff Miller, previously admitted that he took what he called a campaign contribution of $1,000 from the FBI's front company. He has not been charged with a crime.
Politicians of both parties have been tarred by scandal, but Republicans could suffer worse than Democrats do nationwide, said Larry Jacobs, director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
If corruption charges in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly target Republican politicians, loyal GOP voters could lose heart while Democrats are energized, he said. That could make previously safe districts more competitive, he said. So far, though, voters are only vaguely aware of Abramoff's and DeLay's troubles, Jacobs said.
Republicans have more to lose because they're in power at the federal level and control a majority of the governors' offices and legislatures, he said.
Nancy Todd, the chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants, cautioned that while it might be tempting for a challenger to make a big deal about corruption, the strategy could backfire. Voters generally dislike finger-pointing, she said. Plus, candidates who run on reform platforms will be held to even higher ethical standards.
"I would think very long and hard about wearing a white hat," said Todd, a Las Vegas consultant who specializes in gaming issues.
Harvey J. Tucker, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, said few incumbents are truly in danger of losing their jobs even though scandals keep cropping up in headlines.
Legislative and congressional districts are drawn to insulate officeholders, and voters often focus their anger on lawmakers from outside of those districts, Tucker said. Even if scandals are sweeping the nation, "all elections are state-level or smaller," he said.