Unfunded Ethics

Posted March 13, 2007 at 4:36pm

Democrats are fond of complaining — often justifiably — when Republicans authorize a popular program and then fail to appropriate funds for it. Both parties, in fact, disparage “unfunded mandates” imposed by the federal government on states and localities. Rightly so.

But this year we have a case of the House of Representatives imposing massive new requirements on one of its committees — the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — while failing to grant it adequate resources to do the job.

Democrats came roaring into power declaring that they would create a new ethical climate in the House. They passed new rules banning Members and staff from receiving most gifts and meals and requiring disclosure of sponsorship of earmarks, including any financial interest a Member might have.

Clarification of the rules, education of Members and staff and case-by-case approval of privately funded travel all were dumped into the lap of the ethics committee. The House desperately needs to revise the Manual for Members, Officers and Employees of the House, which hasn’t been done since 1992. That’s a job for the ethics committee.

The panel needs to upgrade ethics training for Members and staff, which for too long has had all the relevance and splash of a high school calculus lecture. At a minimum, attendees ought to be able to see a PowerPoint presentation and get a packet to take away.

The new gift and meal rules raise an abundance of questions. Members and staff are allowed to receive gifts from “personal friends.” How, exactly, is that defined? What is a “widely attended event” at which it’s permissible for Members and staff to receive free admission and food? The questions can get downright silly, perhaps: It’s presumably OK to eat free chicken wings at a reception, but what about fried calamari, which have to be consumed with a fork? The question does need an answer.

A group of Republican ranking members have just asked the ethics committee to clarify what constitutes a “financial interest” in an earmark, pointing out that serious consequences could ensue if Members get it wrong. All this standards-setting and education requires additional staff — and a bigger budget.

The ethics committee asked for a 43 percent hike in its budget for the 110th Congress. It was the largest percentage request of any committee, but the smallest dollar amount — from $4.3 million over two years to $6.1 million. Overall, House panels asked for an average increase of 10.7 percent, which leadership whacked to an across-the-board 2.4 percent in an effort to demonstrate that fiscal responsibility extends to the House itself.

But, as politicians of both parties complain when it suits them, it’s not responsible to create a requirement and deny the funds to carry it out. In this case, it could put someone into ethical trouble.