Who’s on First for New Ethics Training?

Posted March 5, 2007 at 6:57pm

Confusion over the new ethics guidelines has come to this: House officials can’t even agree on when the rules say they have to begin training staffers on the rules.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) sent a letter to House ethics committee leaders last week raising concern that no training sessions have been scheduled, though rules changes adopted at the beginning of the year called for them to start March 1.

But not everyone concurs that the first of this month was, in fact, the deadline for the sessions to begin. One House aide said the rule simply sets March 1 as its effective date. That means new House staffers beginning work after March 1 must receive training within 60 days. Everyone else has until the end of the year.

The ethics committee declined to comment, and Castle’s office said it is sticking with its reading. “Our understanding is the training should have started March 1,” said Castle spokeswoman Kaitlin Hoffman. “But regardless of whether or not the training starts on that date, it shouldn’t be overlooked. Education is a critical component of fixing the system.”

The back and forth demonstrates the difficulty people on and off Capitol Hill are having coming to terms with standards that are themselves still in flux. While House lawmakers passed rules changes, they have yet to match the legislative reforms Senators adopted earlier this year, meaning the Senate package is hanging in limbo as House leaders prepare a companion measure.

Ethics lawyers said they are filling their schedules with briefings for staffers and lobbyists. And while there is plenty of bewilderment to go around, House aides may be the worst off.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct this year requested a 43 percent hike for its operating budget in the 110th Congress but saw that number slashed when House leaders handed down a 2.4 percent increase across the board over last year.

Panel members had hoped to bring on five additional staffers in part to help handle ethics education efforts and approval requests for private travel. The committee had received a 40 percent bump in the 109th Congress to hire six more staffers, but that money largely went unspent when former Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) got bogged down in disputes that froze the committee for several months. There are 13 staffers currently on the payroll.

“There’s an enormous volume of work down there and not nearly enough people to do it,” one House aide said.

The new House rules require that by Jan. 31 of every year, all staffers certify to the ethics committee that they received training the year before. An added wrinkle: The rule covers those working in district offices.

When they passed a similar reform last year, House Republicans addressed the issue of district office employees by exempting them from the requirement until the ethics panel could develop a Web-based training program. But that bill never made it to negotiations with the Senate, and Democrats did not address the issue in their overhaul package.

As they wait for a more comprehensive briefing, House staffers can call the ethics committee with specific questions. And the panel has issued two memos providing advice on the new gift rules, in addition to guidance on the new travel restrictions.

House lawmakers and staff in the breach also have gotten some assistance from their party committees. The National Republican Congressional Committee briefed GOPers at their January retreat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held office hours and trained Congressional spouses at their retreat. It also briefed new Democrats’ administrative assistants and rolled out a password-protected Web site for candidates.

For their part, lobbyists have been swarming an abundance of training seminars to try to get the lowdown on the new regime and ask questions about compliance.

Jan Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein and ethics compliance expert, said he has been conducting nearly one session per day for companies, trade associations and other groups. The American Society of Association Executives co-hosted a briefing with the American League of Lobbyists in late January. American Society of Association Executives lobbyist Jim Clarke said “folks are hungry” for guidance, and the group will do another as soon as the House wraps up work on its package. And Brian Pallasch, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said his group is aiming for another event in April.

The law and lobbying firm Kelley Drye Collier Shannon hosted a training event last month — reserving space in the University Club to accommodate an oversized crowd. Special counsel Corey Rubin said turnout nearly doubled that of similar sessions in previous years. “There was a lot of confusion about what the rules are,” he said.

The list of training events goes on. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will open its doors March 21 to bring lobbyists up to speed. Marc Elias, the Perkins Coie lawyer conducting the briefing, said it will be “an overview of how we got where we are, where we are now, and where we’re going.”

A week later, the National Republican Senatorial Committee will brief in-cycle Senators and their chiefs of staff on campaign finance law and Senate ethics changes prescribed by the reform bill.

“This usually lasts a good six months, maybe as long as a year, until everyone becomes familiar with the rules,” Baran said of the frenzy over compliance. “Then people usually abide by the rules for about three years. And then things get a little sloppy.”

Susan Davis contributed to this report.