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Democrats Look to Neutralize GOP Ethics Attacks

Correction Appended

House Democrats on Wednesday tried to neutralize a months-long Republican attack on senior Democratic appropriators’ ties to the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group by calling on the ethics committee to disclose whether it is investigating the matter.

The Democrats’ resolution, offered by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) with the backing of leadership, would give the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct 45 days to report on whether it is probing PMA’s dealings with the lawmakers. Lawmakers voted 270-134 to send the measure to the ethics committee, with 28 Republicans crossing the aisle to support it.

But GOP leaders argued that because lawmakers sent the bill to the ethics panel, instead of passing it directly, the panel would need to approve it and then refer it back to the full House for approval before it would take effect. “This is a joke,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It is the tiniest speck of political cover from a Democratic leadership that has voted time after time to block a real investigation of PMA.”

Democratic aides countered that while the Republican critique is technically correct, the ethics panel would act on the resolution in the given time frame because a majority of the chamber — in voting for the resolution — had effectively called for such a move.

House Democratic leaders have been under increasing pressure to confront the scandal surrounding PMA and its history with Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) and panel members Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.).

The firm and its clients gave the trio about $4.8 million in campaign contributions over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, helped those clients secure tens of millions of dollars in targeted projects. Visclosky on Friday acknowledged that his Congressional and campaign offices — and some staffers — have been subpoenaed as part of a federal grand jury probe into the matter. One of those staffers, his longtime chief of staff, Chuck Brimmer, has since resigned, and Visclosky announced Tuesday that he is handing off control of the energy and water spending bill while the investigation proceeds.

With the scandal building steam, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has kept the heat on Democratic top brass by repeatedly forcing votes to jump-start an ethics inquiry. His resolutions have peeled off a slow but steadily rising roster of Democrats. Flake was set to take his ninth stab at forcing the investigation but pulled back Wednesday because of the “confusion on the floor over this,” spokesman Matt Specht said. Flake would seek a new vote on his resolution soon, Specht said.

Early on, the Arizona Republican sought to work with Hoyer to reach an accommodation that both sides could support. And as Flake began his floor assault in late winter, Hoyer argued in two leadership meetings that Democrats should embrace the resolution to give the majority cover as the scandal grew, sources familiar with those sessions have said.

Hoyer even advised Flake to narrow the scope of his earliest draft to make it more palatable. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) countered that the Flake measure would license partisans to pursue ethics witch hunts down the line, and Democrats remained opposed.

Flake said Wednesday that he met with Hoyer again in late April to see whether they could find any middle ground, but the huddle produced no agreement. “I genuinely wanted to get something they could vote for,” he said.

Some senior Democrats have expressed quiet frustration about the political cost of the Flake votes, considering they believe the ethics committee is already investigating the matter. While the panel is normally bound by rules prohibiting the disclosure of information about who or what it is investigating — unless the committee authorizes the release of such details, a rare occurrence — the Democratic resolution would negate those stipulations.

“It’s probably a pretty good rule of thumb that although the rules of the committee call for confidentiality, a resolution of the House ... would trump the rules,” said Rob Walker, an attorney with Wiley Rein who previously served as chief counsel of the House ethics committee and the Senate Ethics Committee.

Nonetheless, House Democrats’ attempt Wednesday to prompt the committee acknowledge whether an investigation is ongoing — as opposed to mandating the ethics panel start an inquiry, one of a handful of ways that formal investigations may be initiated — is unusual.

“There’s always a concern that [the committee has] established rules and procedures ... in the view that these are the best rules and procedures that apply to the ethics process,” Walker said. “This ought to be done only after careful thought about the precedent that might be set.”

Should the ethics panel ultimately acknowledge it has undertaken an investigation, it is unlikely the public disclosure would significantly alter the inquiry.

“There certainly are some circumstances where premature disclosure of an investigation might hurt an investigation, [but] here, I don’t think that’s a concern,” Walker said. “There’s been a lot of publicity about PMA-related allegations. There’s obviously been word through the press that the Justice Department is conducting some inquiries.”

“What [the House] would learn here is simply whether another body is formally involved, and I don’t think that would in any way substantively compromise the committee’s investigation,” he added.

Although the House ethics committee is not officially required to disclose whether it has formed an investigative subcommittee to review a suspected violation of House rules or other laws, the panel has made a practice of announcing such decisions in recent years.

Democrats hope their ethics resolution represents a renewed push by their party to get back on offense on ethics issues.

Assistant to the Speaker and party campaign chief Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who helped quarterback a sweeping ethics and lobbying overhaul when Democrats reclaimed the majority in 2007, recently started talks with government watchdog group Democracy 21 to develop new reform proposals.

“It’s in the preliminary stages, but the areas we’ve been talking about include further reforms dealing with increasing transparency and accountability for lobbying and earmarks,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said.

Van Hollen spokesman Doug Thornell said that “reforming the old ways of doing things is a never ending effort, and Van Hollen is working closely with the Speaker, leadership and freshmen to identify new measures to strengthen the public’s trust in Congress.”

Already, some freshman Democrats — many of whom ran on clean-government platforms but missed the opportunity to shepherd major ethics reforms in the 110th Congress — are pushing for smaller-bore ethics changes. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), for example, authored a bill to double to two years the cooling-off period for former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists. Two other freshman Democrats, Reps. Jim Himes (Conn.) and Tom Perriello (Va.), were early co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill to ban lawmakers from accepting campaign money from their earmark beneficiaries.

Correction: June 8, 2009

The article incorrectly stated that the House agreed by a voice vote to refer to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct a resolution requiring the panel to disclose whether it is investigating the PMA Group controversy. The voice vote in fact ended debate on the matter, and lawmakers took a recorded vote to refer the measure to the ethics committee.

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