Johnson Prepares for Ethics Role

Posted January 3, 2005 at 7:01pm

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) begins a new mission today that puts him in charge of overseeing the smallest but most exclusive town on Capitol Hill: the Senate.

Johnson is the new vice chairman of the Ethics Committee — traditionally one of the least sought-after spots in the chamber, due to the often uncomfortable nature of judging one’s peers. While making clear that he didn’t campaign for the job, Johnson said he expects to be a tough-minded enforcer of Senate rules who will not let partisan concerns cloud his judgment.

“I’m a small-town lawyer by occupation, and I view the role of the Ethics Committee members as being a bit like a small-town judge. You know a lot of people in the community, some of them very well, but you have to apply the law,” Johnson said in an interview.

Johnson joins the Ethics Committee as a complete neophyte, having never served on it during his eight previous years in the Senate or on the House ethics committee during his five terms in that chamber.

Johnson, who retains all his previous committee assignments in the 109th Congress — including seats on Appropriations and Energy and Natural Resources — admitted that he would have much preferred getting the ranking membership of some other panel. But he added that he expects to take the Ethics job seriously.

“I would be the first to acknowledge this is not a highly sought-after position, to be on the committee, much less to be the co-chair. But it is an important role and someone has to do it,” he said. “Once in a while you just have to do something for the good of the institution, and that’s what this is.”

Johnson’s assumption of the vice chairmanship of the panel — the only committee equally divided along partisan lines, with three Republicans and three Democrats — was prompted by the defeat of Johnson’s friend and political mentor, former Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

During the past few Congresses, Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) had been the top Democrat on the Ethics Committee. But Reid’s elevation to Minority Leader in the wake of Daschle’s loss made his continued service on such a politically sensitive panel impractical.

Johnson, who turned 58 last week, joins the panel along with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) at a time when it faces little activity. Ever since the politically charged sexual harassment allegations against former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) were resolved in 1995, the Senate’s Ethics Committee has taken on only one notable case: the severe admonishment it dished out to then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) in 2002. The panel concluded that Torricelli broke chamber rules by accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from a donor.

But thunderclouds loom. Freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a political grenade-thrower in his three terms in the House, is challenging the Senate’s rules that forbid him from maintaining his medical practice back home. Furthermore, following an orientation session regarding ethics rules, Coburn told a Washington Post reporter that the rules were “ridiculous” and “crazy,” vowing to “ignore all that and do what I think is ethically right and aboveboard.”

Also lurking is a leftover case regarding allegations that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) leaked classified information in 2002 after a hearing of the joint intelligence inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Justice Department had been conducting a criminal investigation of the alleged leak, with Shelby as its focus, but instead referred the results of its probe to the Ethics panel late last summer. The committee did not take up the case in the middle of the election season, and the panel’s chairman, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), has declined to say what the committee’s next steps will be regarding Shelby.

As is customary with most top members of the ethics committees, Johnson refused to discuss any specifics about Coburn’s request, the pending Shelby case or the positions he might have on the rules.

But he pledged to avoid the type of infighting that has dominated the House ethics process, especially a series of admonishments of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) that in turn prompted a GOP-led effort to weaken the ethics panel through a series of rules changes. Johnson said the key to his committee’s functioning was to work with Voinovich in a way that removes politics from the process of determining right and wrong.

If the panel can do that, Johnson said, it should gain respect from both sides of the aisle and from the outside community of watchdog groups, who contend that both chambers’ ethics panels are too lax in enforcing their rules.

“It’s very important the that committee be viewed with high regard on both sides of the aisle and not be used as a political forum,” he said. “If it keeps the politics out, it will be effective. Keeping politics out doesn’t just mean going along. It does mean interpreting the rules with rigor.”

And on a personal level, Johnson is ready for some serious de-politicization, having just completed a four-year period of intense political engagement back home. In the 2002 cycle, Johnson edged out John Thune (R-S.D.) by 524 votes in an exhausting two-year campaign. In the 2004 cycle, Johnson was actively involved in Daschle’s narrow defeat to Thune last November.

In an olive branch to Thune, Johnson convened a South Dakota delegation meeting shortly after the campaign with the incoming Senator and Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.), hoping to agree on a common agenda for their state this year.

If he has his way, Johnson will spend most of his time working with his one-time rival on local issues rather than dealing with a major crisis on the Ethics Committee. But Johnson said that Pryor and he had a half-joking conversation about their new committee assignment a few weeks ago, in which Pryor recalled what Senate leaders told his father, former Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), when they appointed him to Ethics in the early 1980s.

“They told him that not all that much happens,” Pryor said to Johnson. Yet the elder Pryor’s service on the Ethics Committee included some of the most difficult cases the panel has ever faced, including the Abscam bribery sting and the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal.

“Heaven knows what the Ethics Committee will bring,” Johnson said.