Ethics Panel Faces Organizational Fight

Posted March 9, 2005 at 6:42pm

A showdown is looming in the House ethics committee as the panel prepares to hold its first meeting of the 109th Congress today.

At issue is whether the equally divided 10-member committee decides to adopt ethics rules changes that were approved by the full House at the beginning of this session.

If the panel fails to do so, it would be in violation of House rules and would be precluded from taking up any new business, such as a complaint filed against a Member, until it comes into compliance.

The five Democrats on the committee, led by Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), appear ready to prevent any effort to allow the panel to move forward.

Mollohan declined to comment on the dispute on Wednesday, but several high-ranking Democratic aides said that blocking the new rules was Mollohan’s intention, although even his own leadership remained unsure about whether he will follow through on his threat.

While Mollohan and the panel’s chairman, Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), were spotted conferring on the House floor Wednesday night, neither would comment on today’s potential face-off. Party leaders on both sides of the aisle were monitoring the situation closely, with both Democratic and Republican leadership staffers predicting that the committee will be unable to organize as required.

In order for the ethics committee to organize for the 109th Congress, it must adopt and publish its own rules in the Congressional Record, as is required for all House committees. Because the ethics committee operates as a bipartisan panel in which tie votes are counted as a failure to pass, each party is able to stop a resolution of organization from being adopted.

Under House rules, a committee has 30 days to organize once it members are appointed — a time period that will, in this case, end on Friday.

The unprecedented partisan face-off stems from continued Democratic anger over ethics-rules changes pushed through the House by the GOP leadership on Jan. 4.

On that day, three Republican-drafted provisions revising ethics rules were approved on a party-line vote: a requirement for a majority vote in the ethics committee before the panel begins to look into ethics complaints; a “presumption of innocence” provision that enhances Members’ ability to challenge a potential punishment after an ethics probe is held; and a measure allowing ethics lawyers to represent more than one person before the committee.

On March 1, Mollohan offered a resolution to overturn those three rules changes, arguing that that they undermined the authority of the ethics committee and that he and other Democrats were not consulted before Republicans introduced them.

Mollohan’s resolution, which has more than 80 Democratic co-sponsors, has been referred for action to the House Rules Committee’s subcommittee on rules and organization of the House — a panel chaired by Hastings. Hastings was handpicked for the ethics chairmanship earlier this year to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), whose independent-minded leadership of the panel rankled GOP leaders.

It is unclear how far Mollohan is prepared to go in the organizational meeting scheduled for today. If he and the other four Democrats on the committee — Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio), Gene Green (Texas), Lucille Roybal-Allard (California) and Mike Doyle (Pa.) — all vote against proposed committee rules, then the panel will be unable to organize. That would be uncharted territory for the committee, with no one sure what would occur next.

As an alternative, Mollohan and the other Democrats could agree to let the committee partially organize. For instance, the Democrats may consent to letting the committee continue providing advice on ethics issues to Members’ offices, but then refuse to support the rest of the new ethics rules.

The ethics committee is unique among House panels in that the basic rules for the committee are adopted by the entire House in the rules package approved at the beginning of each Congress. These lay out the ground rules for the panel, such as how it will handle complaints and other procedures.

However, specific regulations for the ethics committee, such as those covering quorum requirements or specifying how the panel may interview witnesses, can be dealt with only when the committee itself organizes.

The full House could force the ethics committee to adopt new rules even if the committee itself fails to do so. But most veterans of the ethics process doubt that the House leadership of both parties would want to escalate the dispute to that level.

The ethics committee staff will continue to go to work as usual in the event of a organizational stalemate. Hastings has already decided to replace John Vargo, the former staff director and chief counsel, and Paul Lewis, another counsel, in another move that angered Democrats. No replacement for Vargo has been put forward yet, and the two parties will have to reach an agreement on that choice as well since staff hirings have to be approved by a majority of the committee.

Currently, the ethics committee has three informal probes under way, plus one investigative subcommittee looking into a complaint filed against Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). It is unclear whether those probes can continue if the committee fails to organize.

Senior GOP aides said the Democrats will be to blame for shutting down the ethics committee if the dispute drags on. They point to the fact that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had agreed recently to meet with Mollohan to discuss the West Virginia Democrat’s proposal. When Mollohan went public with his resolution last week, Hastert cancelled that meeting.

“The Democrats are trying to politicize the ethics process, and this is another way for them to raise the level of partisan rhetoric without doing anything substantive to improve this institution,” said a senior GOP aide close to the issue.

Democrats, for their part, said Republicans would be responsible for any ethics deadlock.

They note that the rules changes were offered in the first place because GOP lawmakers were unhappy that the ethics committee had formally admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) three times last year in two different cases. They also point to Hastert’s decision to oust Hefley as ethics chairman as an erosion of the autonomy of the panel.

“This is their problem, not ours,” said a senior Democratic staffer. “They have to fix this, we don’t.”

Democrats are benefiting from a huge public relations advantage at the moment, with new ethics problems for GOP lawmakers emerging on a regular basis.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have improperly paid for golfing trips to Scotland for Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) in 2002 and 2003.

Both Republicans have stated that they believe the trips were legal and were paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Abramoff was a member of the Board for this organization at that time. If the center did fund the trips, they were legal. Abramoff, as a registered lobbyist, is barred from doing so.