Ethics Panel Gets New Chairman, Top Aide

Posted January 7, 2003 at 5:45pm

After concluding high-profile cases last year, the Congressional ethics committees will begin on a quieter note in the 108th Congress with some personnel changes in committee membership and staff.

In a surprise decision, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has declined to allow Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to chair the Senate Ethics Committee, sticking to a strict interpretation of Republican rules limiting the number of gavels a Senator can wield.

Roberts is the new chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee, but had previously been given a waiver to take over Ethics — a committee generally despised by most Members — by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) before he was pushed aside as Republican leader last month.

Instead, Frist has elevated Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) to serve as chairman of Ethics. Frist informed Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the vice chairman of the panel, of the decision in a Monday call.

By all accounts, Reid and Roberts had worked out a cordial relationship for what can be a very politically tricky committee. And Roberts has a long history of dealing with ethical issues, first in the House as a key player in investigating the post office and bank scandals of the early 1990s and then as a member of Senate Ethics since entering the chamber in 1997, including a seven-month probe last year of gifts taken by former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).

Roberts said Frist was worried what impact a waiver for him would have throughout the GOP Conference, which adopted in 1996 a limit of one full committee chairmanship per Senator. “If I get a waiver, that sets a precedent, and it leads to other requests for waivers,” Roberts said.

Lott, however, viewed Ethics as outside that GOP limit on committee chairmanships because of its “select” status. The six-member panel is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and staffers are hired on a nonpartisan basis.

Roberts will remain on Ethics through the 108th Congress, which will mark an unusually long stint of eight straight years on the panel. Roberts said Frist wants him to stay on because of his veteran status on the issues. “I’m sort of a safety valve,” he said.

Reid will continue to serve as the committee’s top Democrat.

The six-member Senate panel will also pick up a new chief counsel and staff director from its counterpart in the House. Rob Walker, who had held the same titles at the much-livelier House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, will assume the top post in the Senate. He replaces longtime chief counsel Victor Baird, who is retiring.

Walker, a former homicide prosecutor who also served in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, previously worked on the Senate committee under Baird before taking the House spot in 1999.

Walker’s replacement will be named after the House panel’s membership is decided. The panel’s top Democrat for the past five years, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), will not return to the committee. His replacement as well as other membership decisions were unclear and may not be settled for several weeks.

It was also unclear whether Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who calmly guided the panel through a tumultuous expulsion proceeding last year against former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), will return to the helm.

Membership on the 10-member House panel is considered the least desirable in Congress, and lawmakers frequently must be persuaded by their party leaders to take a turn on the committee that sits in judgement of fellow colleagues. But for the first time in years, the House panel appears to have very little on its docket in the way of pending cases, and rules adopted in 1997 severely restrict the ability of citizens to file complaints against lawmakers for ethical lapses.