GOP: Conflict Rules Unclear

Posted March 12, 2007 at 6:31pm

A group of House GOP ranking members is asking for clarification of the chamber’s new rules requiring lawmakers who request earmarks to certify that neither they nor their spouses have any financial interest in the requests.

The recently enacted earmark reforms are part of Democrats’ efforts to regulate a process that played a role in a series of prominent corruption cases, most notably that of jailed ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). The rules have been applauded by outside watchdog groups and Democratic leaders who promised to cut down on the number of earmark requests that ballooned under 12 years of Republican control.

But a cadre of senior Republicans have recently raised concerns with the ethics committee that the rule — which calls for Members making earmark requests to send a letter to the committee of jurisdiction vowing that they have no personal monetary stake in the issue — is vaguely written, asking the committee to clarify what does, and does not, constitute a “financial interest.”

“The addition of the requirements for disclosure contained in [House Rules] significantly raise the stakes for compliance with the rule,” they wrote.

The letter, dated Feb. 28, was signed by GOP ranking members David Dreier (Calif.) on Rules, Spencer Bachus (Ala.) on Financial Services, Tom Davis (Va.) on Oversight and Government Reform, Ralph Hall (Texas) on Science and Technology, Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) on Intelligence, Howard McKeon (Calif.) on Education and Labor, John Mica (Fla.) on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Lamar Smith (Texas) on Judiciary.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, has not yet responded to the request.

To proponents of the new disclosure rules, the requirement seems fairly straightforward.

“I think it’s laudable that leadership has set up a process for Members to sign on the dotted line and say ‘I have no financial interest here,’” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “To try to find every detail, every possible permutation, twist and turn, and implication of every potential investment decision presents a much greater hurdle than what was intended here. I think reasonable people can come to similar conclusions.”

But as the House embarks into uncharted territory to comply with the new requirements, these Members and knowledgeable aides argue that more explicit guidelines need to be made available because the the way rules are interpreted now will set important precedents for the future.

“There is no history on this,” one senior GOP aide said. “I think Members need bright lines when it comes to new rules.”

The ranking members said they are concerned that the absence of more explicit rules “has the potential to expose Members to severe sanctions for even inadvertent omissions, and these clarifications are necessary for us to assist our Members in their compliance with the rules,” they wrote.

These Members also are seeking clarification on when the letter has to be filed with the committee of jurisdiction. The current rule does not offer time guidelines. “In the case of a bill which contains an earmark, is it at the time of introduction? At the time the committee holds a hearing? When the committee takes action on the measure? As currently drafted, Members do not know when and under what circumstances to file the disclosure …” they wrote.

A Member’s failure to disclose his or her personal financial interest in an earmark request could now result in an ethics violation because the reforms fall under the code of conduct provisions in House Rules.

Members also have raised questions over how many degrees of separation a lawmaker and his spouse need to be from a request to certify that they have no financial interest in the project.

In their letter, the GOP Members wrote: “For instance, if a Member requests an earmark to build a road near a parcel in his district, and the road will facilitate the construction of new housing, does the Member or his spouse have a financial interest if they own stock in a bank which could potentially underwrite the mortgages for new housing? Does the situation change if the Member owns shares in a mutual fund which contains a number of banks which are mortgage lenders?”

Similarly, Ellis acknowledged that there are gray areas when it comes to the disclosure forms. For instance, any road that is built in a district has the potential to raise the real estate value of a lawmaker’s home — which could count as a financial interest even if the road is important to the district as a whole.

“In that case, it’s hard to say if there was a financial benefit or not,” Ellis said. “At some point, you have to decide, ‘How many degrees do you want to take it?’ But I think reasonable people can make those determinations.”

Taxpayers for Common Sense and other reform groups — as well as House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) — have said the ultimate goal of the reforms is to severely restrict the total number of earmark requests, which quintupled under Republican control. Ellis argued that Members should more often be seeking funds through regular order and the budget process than relying on earmarks as heavily as they have in the past.

“At the end of the day, if all this means is Members are going to take a harder look at their requests and that there’s going to be less earmarking, then we’re not going to shed any tears over that,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Appropriations Committee said the panel is referring all disclosure inquiries to the ethics committee; the panel has not released any public guidance on the new earmark rules. Ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) declined to comment last week when asked if the committee was working toward that end, but the panel does not comment on internal matters.

Members can always seek individual guidance from the ethics committee on the new earmark requirements. While the committee does not make those communications public, the requesters can do so if they choose.