As they try to reclaim the ethical high ground during a difficult stretch, House Democratic leaders are considering a dramatic move: declaring a party-wide ban on earmarks this year.
The idea, floated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a leadership huddle Tuesday, is for House Democrats to outflank their Republican counterparts, who have mulled and rejected such a moratorium in recent years.
The discussion was brief and inconclusive, sources with knowledge of the session said. Leaders decided they needed to explore it further with Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). But if top Democratic brass decides to embrace the ban, it would likely have far-reaching consequences — and meet stiff resistance from some corners of the Democratic Caucus that cherish earmarks as a constitutionally protected legislative prerogative and a political necessity in an increasingly hostile environment for incumbents.
For the current fiscal year alone, members of both parties in both chambers secured 9,499 earmarks worth a total of $15.9 billion, according to a study by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The Democratic proposal in part reflects a calculation by leaders that their earmarks could get scrapped anyway. With the Senate struggling to handle even routine business, House leaders believe their spending bills might well end up tangled in an end-of-year morass in the other chamber, leaving their projects on the cutting room floor as lawmakers roll spending measures into a single package.
"Why fight the pain and take that hit when most of these bills aren't even going to the president's desk?" one leadership aide said.
No leader raised strong objections to the idea last week, sources said. But Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) argued that if the majority pursues the ban, it needs to be wholesale, shutting off the targeted spending for both public and private entities.
A decision on the matter would likely need to happen quickly — earmark requests are due to the Appropriations panel by March 19. But some aides said leaders have some wiggle room on the timeline since the spending-bill-writing process won't kick into high gear until later this spring.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Republicans would welcome the policy. "For more than two years, we've been asking House Democrats to join us in an earmark moratorium and real earmark reform," he said in a statement. "I hope they are finally ready to get serious about ending their out-of-control spending spree, which is scaring the hell out of the American people."
The discussion among Democratic leaders came at the top of what was a damaging week on the ethics front. Leaders at the time were in the middle of dealing with the crisis surrounding Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) as he tried to hang on to his Ways and Means gavel after an ethics admonishment. Facing a full-blown collapse of support among junior Democrats, Rangel surrendered his chairmanship Wednesday morning.
[IMGCAP(1)]Just hours later, leaders were facing a new controversy after reports surfaced that freshman Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) had been accused of sexually harassing a male staffer — allegations that the ethics committee is probing. Massa announced that day he would not seek re-election, pointing to a recent cancer diagnosis. By Friday afternoon, however, he released a statement announcing his resignation and taking responsibility for ethics problems he described as "mine and mine alone."
While Republicans were largely quiet on the Massa mess, they lashed Democrats for standing by Rangel for months while he faced multiple ethics allegations. Boehner, calling Rangel's decision to step aside "appropriate," took Pelosi and other leaders to task for having defended him for so long — "especially after promising to preside over the most honest, open and ethical Congress in history."
The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, hammered Democrats for hanging on to Rangel's campaign contributions and kept score as Members rushed to return them. As of Friday morning, the committee noted that $418,000 in his largess had either been returned or given to charity.
Taking stock even as the controversies raged, top Democrats last week said they believe they are in a strong position to weather the political fallout of their recent pileup of ethics troubles. They pointed to the fact that the midterm elections are eight months away, that Republicans are still battling plenty of problems of their own, and that their failings, while damaging, also proved that the moribund ethics process they inherited from the GOP is now fully functional and weeding out bad actors.
"We've got to introduce the pot to the kettle here if they're talking about ethics," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), vice chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "because they had an ethics system that was totally nonfunctional. Instead of addressing their Members' ethics concerns, they swept them under the rug, stalled and fostered the culture of corruption. We made sure we created a system where we could shine a light on it and when there is a problem, that a member gets called out on it and is held accountable."
Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), also a DCCC vice chairman and the man charged with trying to rally support for Rangel last week, warned Republicans against trying to make too much of Democratic missteps lest it backfire. "I don't think they should get too high on the hog on human frailties here," he said. "They have their own human frailties they need to be mindful of, as well."
But the party is newly sensitized to the political threat of letting the GOP brand it as entitled and out of touch — an awareness on display as Democrats fumbled Rangel's succession on Ways and Means last week. After Rangel stepped aside Wednesday, the gavel passed to the panel's second-in-line, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a veteran with a long history of off-color remarks and ethics troubles of his own. But committee members balked at Stark's promotion and met for hours on Wednesday to consider how to hand the chairmanship to a less controversial figure.
During an afternoon meeting that day, Becerra and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), both members of leadership, made the case to Stark that his record would make him an inviting target for Republicans and a distraction for politically endangered Democrats, sources familiar with the session said. Committee members settled on third-ranking panel member Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), who assumed the position Thursday.
Meanwhile, the newest House Democrats, many of whom were elected on promises to change the way Washington does business, are pushing their own proposals for ethics and process reforms.
As of Friday morning, freshman Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) had rounded up 22 co-sponsors for a bill that would cut lawmakers' pay by 5 percent starting next year. (She noted in an interview that she is already voluntarily giving back that amount of her pay). And members of the freshman class are set to meet this week to finalize a package of reforms they have been working on for months.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), an organizer of the effort, said they include banning campaign contributions from directors and managers of earmark recipients, forbidding lawmakers from making stock trades based on insider knowledge of legislation, and overhauling the per diem system lawmakers use on overseas trips that frequently leaves them with taxpayer dollars in their pockets.
"We came in at a time when we realized the American people are frustrated and angry," Kirkpatrick said. "We know we're being held to a higher standard."