Partisanship Infiltrates House Admin Panel

Posted September 23, 2003 at 6:54pm

For the past several years, the House Administration Committee has kept itself relatively insulated from the partisan acrimony common in the chamber, primarily through the storied relationship between Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and former ranking member Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

But a series of events in the past few weeks indicates that Ney and the current ranking member, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), have yet to develop the personal rapport that allowed Ney and Hoyer to largely avoid public disputes.

The two acknowledged in interviews that their relationship is a work in progress and maintained that any conflict between them has primarily been a misunderstanding.

“Bob is an institutionalist like I am, and we both understand and respect our jobs,” Larson said. “This is a Member-orientated committee. For the most part, he’s been a real pleasure to work with.”

Ney commented that their “relatively new” relationship is “comparable to a decent marriage. You have a spat and you don’t run to the divorce lawyers.”

Despite their measured comments after the fact, however, the confluence of two unrelated events at the beginning of September ignited partisan tensions that haven’t been apparent on the panel since it was chaired by now-Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).

“There’s some strange stuff going on,” said one Member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Steny is no wallflower. He can be one of the most partisan people in Congress,” but disputes between him and Ney were always aired privately. The two worked together to pass a comprehensive election reform bill, which few thought was possible in a bitterly split House.

That attitude might be shifting, but insiders maintain it’s too early to tell which way the spirit of the committee will go.

“Bob is a very amenable guy,” Larson said, adding, “You will have partisan disagreements, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Earlier this month, Larson and Ney exchanged heated words in the press over Rep. Karen McCarthy’s (D-Mo.) $25,000 contract with political consultant Peter Fenn after Ney ruled the lawmaker couldn’t use her Members’ Representational Allowance to pay $12,500 for Fenn’s work on her official Web site and evaluation of staff performance. (The other half was picked up by her campaign committee.)

After hearing about the decision, Larson wrote to the chairman formally requesting a meeting to discuss it — which infuriated Ney.

“If I consult with John Larson one more time on this I should send him a bill for consulting,” Ney told The Associated Press. “I’m starting to think it’s nothing but a smoke screen. We issued a ruling. They need to do what’s legally correct.”

House rules prohibit the use of consultants for legislative work. McCarthy maintained that Fenn was not a professional consultant but a vendor, which Members are allowed to pay with MRA funds for tasks such as equipment maintenance and data entry.

Larson said at the time that he just wanted to make sure McCarthy got a fair shake. Ney agreed to meet with him the following week.

“We just went back over everything,” Ney said. “We did discuss our internal procedures … how we get information back and forth. We spent some time on that and it was amenable.”

Ney added that he thought he and his staff had adequately communicated with Larson and the minority staff before and after the August recess, pointing to e-mail exchanges and several staff and Member-staff meetings.

“I view consulting as what we do. At the end of the day, somebody has to make a decision. Under the House rules I do that, and I did,” Ney said. “I thought we understood each other a lot more” after that.

Larson agreed that the meeting primarily served to discuss what level of consultation was appropriate.

“I think there was a lot of miscommunication between the staffs. My policy is always direct. I went right to Bob. He sat there and he was surprised, and I was equally surprised” at how the events had transpired, Larson said. “He’s absolutely right. It’s his prerogative. We sat down and worked it out.”

While the McCarthy decision was playing out, the committee held a hearing to determine whether Members would be able to send e-mail to constituents from their House accounts up to Election Day and without prior approval of the Franking Commission. In a party-line vote, the panel voted 5-3 to no longer apply uniformly standards for U.S. postal mail and electronic correspondence, a decision committee member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said would allow constituents to continue getting requested legislative updates as an election approaches. Committee Democrats, including Larson, maintained that such a rules change would be fraught with potential for abuse.

After the vote Ney said he respected the ranking member’s point of view — “I agree with John that Members have to be very, very careful” not to put political content in the messages — but questioned whether Larson changed his mind after the proposal was first raised.

“On this one, at one point in time the indicators that were given in the meeting, there was a public statement made that this sounded like good policy. I think they sat back and re-assessed that and decided it wasn’t,” Ney said.

Larson insisted that he never changed his mind: “When it was first brought up … it was very narrowly defined. I said at one point that we ought to look at that situation.”

Larson said he never expressed support for eliminating the provisions that prevent Members from sending unsolicited correspondence from their official e-mail accounts within 90 days of an election. “It was never presented in that light, and I objected once everybody fleshed out what the plan really was.”

Asked to what degree he consults with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on issues before the committee, Larson said, “We obviously communicate with her regularly. We try to stay in touch with her on most issues.

“A lot of the issues on House Administration can be pretty mundane — not that it’s without important issues,” Larson added, explaining that Pelosi appointed him to the post because she trusted him to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities.

Larson said one of Pelosi’s priorities is ensuring Congress demonstrates diversity in hiring and procurement. To that end, he pushed to have a minority procurement fair this month.

“I gotta compliment Bob Ney,” Larson said. “He worked very closely to make sure this happened. We had over 300 people who showed up.”

But the headline of the press release from Ney’s staff announcing the event read: “Republican-led House Seeks to Expand Opportunities for Minorities/Schedules All-Day Minority Procurement Workshop To Outline Federal Contracts Process.”

The release went on to quote Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) supporting the workshop. “Speaker Hastert has made expanding opportunities for minorities a priority for the Republican-led House, and Chairman Ney today recognized his leadership on this important issue,” the statement read.

Nowhere in the release is Larson’s name mentioned. The minority sent out its own release, which didn’t mention Ney. The majority’s release said the event was open to the press. An internal memo from the minority’s press secretary to the Caucus indicated the workshop was a pilot and thus closed to the media.

The separate releases speak to another issue. Larson has hired a press secretary specifically for the minority staff, separate from his personal office. Previously, Hoyer’s personal press secretary dealt with committee matters, as does Brian Walsh, Ney’s spokesman.