Democrats Seek Review Of Franking Dismissal

Posted July 20, 2005 at 6:16pm

Democratic members of the House Franking Commission are seeking a legal review of the panel’s guidelines in their continuing pursuit of two complaints lodged against Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), who serves as ranking member on the Franking Commission, said the panel’s Minority legal counsel is examining the issue to determine how it will be pursued, after being dismissed by the commission last week.

“This issue cannot die, because when it does, it will let Members know, it will let the public know, that their complaints were not dealt with,” Millender-McDonald said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve got to find common ground on this issue and try to deal with it.”

The dispute centers on a November 2004 flier authored by Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee, that was mailed to residents in Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming on the politically charged issue of snowmobiles in national parks.

House Democrats have criticized the literature, which cost $68,000 in taxpayer money for printing and postage. They argue that Pombo violated franking rules by including partisan content. Two complaints filed with the Franking Commission — one from the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, the other from two Minnesota environmental lawyers — echoed those allegations.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who chairs the the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, dismissed those complaints in a July 13 letter asserting the commission had violated federal statutes when it failed to act for more than eight months on the complaint.

In the letter, Ney criticized the panel’s Democrats, asserting that their inaction had prevented the commission from acting in the required time period of 30 legislative days.

Millender-McDonald acknowledged that the panel’s Democrats did not act on the matter during that period — including three months in 109th Congress, when the commission was prevented from organizing until early April because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had not appointed members to the panel — but she defended the delay.

“There were a lot of factors here that played into our not responding,” Pelosi said. Democratic Reps. Rush Holt (N.J.) and Brad Sherman (Calif.) also serve on the panel.

Among those reasons Millender-McDonald cited ongoing work of the House Administration Committee — she serves as ranking member on the panel, which is chaired by Ney — as well as “major surgery” she underwent in May.

In addition to those factors delaying commission action, Millender-McDonald asserted that she was unaware of the time requirements for handling franking complaints until she received a June 17 letter issued by Ney, stating that the deadline had expired the previous day.

“This law was not brought forth to me until the June letter,” Millender-McDonald said.

But Ney brushed off that assertion, stating that even if Millender-McDonald was unfamiliar with the regulations, commission staff should have been aware of the deadline.

“They most certainly do know the procedures of the House,” Ney said, adding, “I don’t know what went wrong over there.”

According to Ney’s June 17 letter, the commission initiated the 30-legislative day period for consideration of the complaints when it convened on April 6, nearly five months after the complaints were first filed.

The following day, April 7, the commission staff circulated a poll to the panel’s members requesting their vote on the complaints against Pombo, the letter stated.

While the panel’s Republican members completed voting a few days later, the Democratic members declined to do so.

According to a June 21 letter authored by Millender-McDonald, the panel’s Democrats did not take part in the poll — the method the committee has used to make its decisions since 1986, the last time it actually met — because they had yet to discuss the recommendations made by Republican staff members.

Republican staff on the commission, citing such precedents as the 1986 decision in favor of then-Rep Jim Jones (D-Okla.), had advised that the matter be dismissed in a document issued Feb. 10.

In addition, Millender-McDonald, who has sought a public hearing on the matter, in the June 21 letter challenged whether the 30-day time limit could begin before the panel had actually met to “determine whether a proceeding or hearing is warranted.”

On Tuesday, Millender-McDonald said the issue — which she described as “high profile” — should not be allowed to become dormant.

“The spirit of the law should play in an issue like this, as well as the law,” she said. “We’re going to see what we can do.”

But Ney, who has stated that Pombo did not violate House rules when he issued the 2004 mass mailing, said he will not revisit the issue.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a closed matter,” Ney said. “I think they should do the right thing — stop this political campaign. Let’s get to the business of the House.”

The Ohio lawmaker asserted that Democrats are seeking to prolong the issue for political gain, citing recent advertisements sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that have appeared in newspapers in Pombo’s district.

“We’ve given them eight months. If somebody can’t pick somebody and make a decision to move the process forward in eight months, this has been [dragged] out to beat Pombo up,” Ney said.

A Pombo spokesman has similarly criticized the commission’s Democrats.

“Not even ineptitude can explain their failure to act in that time frame,” said Resources Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy. “The only thing that can explain their failure to act here is partisan politics, and that explanation is only reinforced by their apparent coordination with the DCCC, because it is painfully clear that no rules or regulations were violated what-so-ever.”

But Millender-McDonald has denied those charges, stating that the she is not pursuing the issue for political purposes.

“I do not seek to do anything but respond to the American people when they question the integrity of this committee,” Millender-McDonald said. “We have to resolve this issue and resolve it soon.”

Ney responded, however, that the House Administration panel has already addressed the broad concerns raised by Democrats over Pombo’s 2004 flier, altering the guidelines that apply to committee-issued mail in April 2005.

The new regulations limit committees to spending no more than $5,000 a year on taxpayer-funded mass mailings, and set time-restrictions that prohibit mailings of more than 500 nearly identical pieces of unsolicited correspondence within 90 days of an election. Similar time-restrictions were already in place for individual lawmakers.

While Pombo would not be able to issue the same filer under the new guidelines, Ney said the mailing would have been legitimate when it was issued in 2004.

“Obviously if Pombo was guilty of any infractions, we wouldn’t have had to change the rules,” Ney asserted.

While Ney has determined that his panel will not revisit the existing charges, franking guidelines allow complaints to be filed up to one year after a mailing is issued, meaning new charges could be leveled against Pombo.

It remains unclear, however, whether any of the four individuals who filed the original complaints will refile in coming months.

Millender-McDonald said Tuesday she has not been in contact with either of the two groups.

Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Director Frank Clemente said last week that he would review franking guidelines. Neither Rebecca Rom nor Sherry Enzler, both Minnesota environmental lawyers, returned calls seeking comment.

Ney said the commission would address any new complaints in an appropriate manner.

“If they file, we’ll deal with it,” Ney said. “And then the Democrats can cast a political vote … or they can do the right thing and look at the precedent of the House.”

Ney also said he would seek to ensure that the communication is improved on the commission: “I will hand-feed the ranking member’s staff as to the procedures that they should know in the first place.”