Ethics Seeks Big Budget Increase

Posted March 16, 2005 at 6:48pm

House ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) announced Wednesday that his panel will seek to create an “ethical culture” in the chamber through increased education and outreach for both Members and staff.

The Washington lawmaker unveiled the plan during a House Administration Committee hearing on the panel’s biennial budget request, which would need to grow to $4.8 million, an increase of 55 percent, to implement the new proposal. Despite an ongoing dispute over organizing the committee for the 109th Congress, Hastings and panel ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) were in agreement on the request for a big budget hike.

“I truly believe that all Members and staff genuinely want to do the right things when it comes to ethics,” Hastings said. “Our obligation to them is to do everything possible to help people understand the rules and follow the rules. That means taking a hard look at our publications, our training programs, the way we use communications tools and technology, and the way we provide advice and counsel.”

Under the proposal, the committee’s current 13-member staff would grow by almost 50 percent, adding six new positions including two additional investigative counsel posts, a financial disclosure coordinator, an employee to coordinate and review publications issued by the panel, a professional training coordinator and a staff assistant.

“[W]e plan to add a professional trainer to our staff, broaden our focus from Members and their top aides to every employee in the House, and make ethics training much more widely available to district staff as well,” Hastings said.

Three of the new positions, the publications, training and financial disclosure coordinators would serve under the committee’s advice and education staff, which currently provides training to House Members and their staffs on ethics rules.

The committee will seek to provide House employees with more ethics education than in past years, Hastings said, citing a recent study conducted by the House Chief Administrative Officer which found ethics training to be among “the most pressing needs” in the chamber.

“Among the committee’s most essential functions is to provide advice and counsel to Members and staff concerning ethics rules in the House,” Hastings added. “By adding professional staff to focus principally on publications and training — and by adjusting the way the committee processes thousands of financial disclosure filings each year — we expect to free up attorneys on our advice and education staff to measurably improve our turnaround time and general responsiveness to request from those we serve.”

If the committee receives its full budget request, Hastings’ proposal would allow it to double the number of investigative counsel positions to four.

“[T]he addition of two experienced investigative counsels will enable the committee to strengthen its investigative capability — enhancing our ability to ascertain the facts when ethics violations are alleged, and permitting the committee to provide Members and staff with timely disposition of complaints once filed,” Hastings said.

In addition, the committee plans to publish a new edition of the House Ethics Manual, Hastings said. The 493-page volume was last revised more than a decade ago.

“The committee will work with [the Government Printing Office] to produce a manual that is more clearly written and attractively presented than the badly outdated 1992 version still being used throughout the House,” Hastings said.

Similarly, the panel intends to “upgrade” other publications and materials it distributes to Members and their staffs, as well as hire an outside vendor to overhaul its Web site to make it “more attractive, interactive and useful for those inside the House as well as the press and general public,” Hastings said.

The proposal would require an infusion of about $1.7 million into the panel’s budget, a significant increase for a committee that has typically sought flat budgets in recent years.

“While most other committees have gradually expanded their capabilities over the past decade, we have not — opting instead to request only enough funds to maintain existing staff and replace worn-out equipment as needed,” Hastings said, noting the committee staff has not grown since the 104th Congress.

The panel’s ranking member, Mollohan, expressed support for the proposal.

The West Virginia lawmaker stated that the committee has performed its investigative function “admirably” in recent years, but supported the move to enhance the panel’s investigative activities.

Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) appeared generally supportive of the request, noting the panel is at “a turning point.” A source familiar with the proposal said it has also received the support of House leadership.

Although it has yet to officially organize, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, is allowed to move forward with administrative activities, including issuing a budget request.

House Democrats, led by Mollohan, have blocked the equally divided 10-member panel from formally organizing over objections to three Republican-drafted changes to ethics rules adopted at the start of the 109th Congress.

The most important of these revisions, the most significant since a bipartisan task force rewrote the rules in 1997, requires a majority vote in the ethics committee before an investigation can begin. Previously, a deadlock on the evenly divided panel would result in an investigation being opened.

While testifying at Wednesday’s hearing, Mollohan said the committee is working to resolve the dispute.

“We’ll have a very good chance of resolving it in a near-term time frame,” Mollohan said.

Following the hearing, Hastings, who was hand-picked by leadership to head the ethics panel earlier this year, said of the discussions: “We’ll continue to work on it.”

During Wednesday’s Republican Conference meeting, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) rose to defend the rules changes made at the beginning of this Congress, arguing that they were designed to ensure fairness in the ethics process.