Ex-Members May Lose Floor Passes

Posted May 11, 2005 at 6:55pm

Amid a growing controversy over Congressional ethics and the behavior of prominent lobbyists, House leaders from both parties are considering restricting the floor privileges of ex-Members, sources say.

Such a change could be considered by the House Administration Committee in conjunction with a broader lobbying-reform bill being drafted by Democratic Reps. Marty Meehan (Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

Though the issue of floor privileges is not expected to be included in that bill — a bill that could be sent straight to the floor rather than going through House Administration — both Democratic and GOP leadership sources said the general idea is under discussion.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has expressed a willingness to examine the Meehan-Emanuel bill, though he and other Republicans have complained about the involvement of Emanuel, who they claim is too partisan to have credibility on the issue.

Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the chairman would be “open to considering” a change in the rules for ex-Members.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a House Administration member, was more blunt.

“I just think it needs to be made clear that if [former Members] are lobbying, they should not do so on the floor,” Mica said.

Current House rules say that ex-lawmakers may come to the floor only if “they do not have any direct personal or pecuniary interest in any legislative measure pending before the House or reported by a committee … and they are not in the employ of, or do not represent, any party or organization for the purpose of influencing, directly or indirectly, the passage, defeat, or amendment of any legislative measure pending before the House.”

Yet despite such explicit rules already on the books, several House aides said there was a “fine line” that separated those ex-Members who come to the floor to visit their old friends and those who come to ply their new trade.

“To a lot of Members, the floor is the one place you can go” without being lobbied, said a Democratic leadership aide. “And we want it to remain that way.”

Democrats complained about non-Member floor access before, in a different context. During the controversial Medicare drug vote in 2003, many Democrats were upset that then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was on the floor, a privilege he was allowed as a Cabinet secretary.

Former Members-turned-lobbyists, meanwhile, said revoking their floor access wouldn’t do much to change lobbying practices.

Several said they rarely go to floor at all — and when they do, they said, they never collar their former colleagues. Such an approach would most likely get a chilly reception.

“I can recall one Member who did that, and we were all very indignant about it,” said former Rep. Allan Swift (D-Wash.), now a lobbyist for the firm Colling Murphy. “It’s a very dumb thing to do, and it is, in my experience, nothing that is done at all.”

In the seven years since he left the House, former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) said he has returned to the floor only once, and even then, it was only to walk straight across it as he talked to a Member.

“That’s a decision on my part,” he said.

So when Fazio — who’s now transitioning from the lobbying firm Clark and Weinstock to the law and lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer Feld — wants to speak to a Member who happens to be on the floor, he simply sends in a request card. Such was the case Wednesday, when his scheduled lunch with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) was put off by the temporary evacuation of the Capitol.

Fazio said he spent two hours wandering around, then tried to reach Conyers with a card, but they decided to reschedule.

Former Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) finds himself on the floor about once a week to visit with his old colleagues — but not to press business for his firm, Collier Shannon Scott.

“I might say I want to talk to them about something and ask who to call in their office, but that’s nothing more than I’d do if I met them on the street,” he said.

Other former Members enjoy the floor privilege for the access it grants them to special events, such as State of the Union addresses and visits by foreign dignitaries.

Former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.), now with Wiley Rein and Fielding, used his former Member status to land a seat on the floor when Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko addressed a joint session last month. Slattery, who recently did pro bono work monitoring the controversial Ukrainian elections, said he was going to sit in the gallery but noticed several empty seats on the floor.

“Most Members were happy I was there, because they were trying to fill up the House that day,” he said. Pages, he added, were helping fill seats, too.

Bliley echoed the sentiment of several other former Members when he said that a rules change would be a “disappointment” if it meant he could no longer visit with former colleagues. But he added, “It wouldn’t mean anything in the way I conduct my life.”

Either way, Fazio agreed, “We’ll live with it.”