Ethics Panel Confirms Ban on Private Planes

Posted February 19, 2007 at 1:45pm

The House ethics panel is warning Members that they risk violating new rules by flying in certain private airplanes, an unintended consequence of last month’s ethics rewrite that the Democratic leadership is hinting may require a rare reopening of House rules.

“We’re working on a bipartisan basis to correct this oversight as soon as possible,” said a Democratic leadership aide, who admitted the provision was “poorly drafted.”

“No one could rationally believe we were intending to prohibit a Member from using his or her own airplane for purely private travel,” the aide added.

On Friday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) received a letter from ethics panel Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) indicating that the panel interprets the new House rules as prohibiting the use of personal, campaign or House funds to pay for a Member’s use of “a privately owned aircraft.”

The Feb. 16 letter appears to address earlier concerns by Issa and other Members about awkwardly worded language in the Democrats’ ethics package, which some interpreted as banning travel on private planes.

The letter focused on language from the ethics package’s second section — Clause 15 of House Rule 23 — which states that Members “may not use personal funds, official funds or campaign funds for a flight on a non-government airplane that is not licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate for compensation or hire.”

But as Issa and others have noted, the FAA does not license airplanes, just pilots and carriers, so any nongovernment planes are off limits.

The Democratic-drafted language attempted to curb the practice of Members hitching rides on corporate jets, such as when then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) rode on a tobacco company’s private plane to a court hearing in Texas.

But according to FAA lawyers, Issa and a handful of other lawmakers, the mistake in the Democrats’ proposal was obvious: The FAA does not license airplanes, so well-intended or not, the result would be to bar travel by House Members on any plane that is neither owned nor licensed by the government.

That would cover every commercial and private airplane.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s letter is narrowly focused, so it is not clear whether the committee goes as far as a previous interpretation by the FAA. The agency confirmed last month that language in the resolution seems to indicate “that no Member can fly on any non-government airplane.”

“This letter only partially addresses the questions we asked the ethics committee about a rule that critically relies on an FAA license that doesn’t even exist,” said Issa spokesman Frederick Hill.

It is unclear exactly how or when the House would reopen the rules package to revise the language on planes, but Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) introduced a bill last week that would clarify the rules to allow Members to fly on their own planes. Issa already has introduced a similar bill.

A Democratic leadership aide said efforts were ongoing to correct the snafu by unanimous consent.