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Rule Change Allows Congressional Pilots to Fly Again

House Democrats reopened portions of their ethics package late Wednesday night, carving out exemptions for Congressional pilots who were inadvertently grounded from flying their private airplanes in January.

The House on Wednesday night passed by unanimous consent H. Res. 363, sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). The resolution exempts Members and their family members from specific bans in the Democratic-written ethics packages involving lawmaker-owned and leased private airplanes.

The flap over airplane use had been a source of frustration for Democratic leadership and the roughly half-dozen Congressional pilots who use private aircraft to shuttle around their often vast rural districts.

Leaders from both parties have struggled for months over how to craft language that would stop a repeat of ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) much-publicized trip on a tobacco company’s private jet, while avoiding unintentional limits on private pilots in Congress.

Soon after the ethics package was passed in early January, Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) office noticed awkward wording in the resolution, which the four-term lawmaker brought to the attention of his fellow Congressional pilots and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). House Democrats quickly attempted to clarify the language.

“I want to assure my colleagues that this is not the intent of this provision,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said on the House floor earlier this year. “We will work closely with the ethics committee and the Committee on House Administration to ensure that this is how these committees will interpret the rule.”

But when the ethics committee began warning Members that they risked violating the chamber’s rules by taking to the skies in non-commercial, non-government airplanes — even if they were piloting the plane — the writing was on the wall: a clarification would not suffice and the provision would have to be re-written.

With an ethics revision a virtual certainty, both sides in recent months have disagreed on how the changes should be enacted. From the start, Democrats have preferred passing the fixes by unanimous consent, which would allow the issue to fade away quietly. Republicans, however, have said that the provision’s poor wording is indicative of a hastily written document that did not go through the usual committee process.

Instead, Republicans preferred that the fix go through regular order, opening the issue up to floor debate and providing the cover necessary for GOP criticisms on earmarks and other larger portions of the ethics package, which Republicans complain were written without their input.

But for now, Republicans say, the private airplane issue is finished.

"Democrats made campaign promises to ban abuse of private aircraft and work with Republicans in an open and bipartisan process,” said Issa aide Frederick Hill. “In the opening days of this Congress, [Democrats] wrote a flawed rules package and shoved it through a process that excluded input from the minority and specific warnings that it contained mistakes. This new rule is sensible, but it is also a step away from the tough campaign rhetoric Democrats used last fall."

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