Ethics Rewrite

Posted March 30, 2007 at 5:37pm

Although his letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggesting it was so tendentiously worded as to invite rejection, there is merit in House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) proposal for a bipartisan task force to revisit the chamber’s ethics code.

The letter charged that “House ethics rules are hopelessly broken” and that “Members on both sides of the aisle are understandably frustrated because they know you can’t ‘clean up Congress’ with confusing rules that are as difficult to comply with as they are to enforce.”

Boehner gave majority Democrats zero credit for trying to clean up Congress with the rules package they passed in January that contained a ban on most gifts and lobbyist-paid travel. Rather, he said, “sweeping changes imposed at the start of this Congress were drafted in secret … without consulting either the Minority or the staff of the nonpartisan Ethics Committee.

“The new rules were then rammed through the House with no opportunity to carefully analyze the proposals or to improve them in any way. The consequences … are now being felt by Members and staff on both sides of the aisle,” he charged.

Argumentative though it was, Boehner’s letter contained a bevy of concrete examples of silliness and confusion in the rules that, indeed, were rushed through without hearings or opportunity for amendment in the first days of the 110th Congress.

He cited an ethics committee advisory (“pink sheet”) holding that a staffer can attend an evening reception hosted by a corporation and consume shrimp, champagne, sliced filet and canapés, but may not accept a slice of pizza or a $7 box lunch from the same corporation at a policy briefing the next day.

A Member may accept $200 tickets for the NCAA Final Four basketball playoffs from Ohio State, a public university, but not from any private school such as Georgetown. A Member who owns his own airplane is prohibited from flying it for any purpose — official, campaign or personal — even at his own expense.

Another pink sheet he cited held that while Members and staff may play in a $1,000-per-person local charity golf tournament, they can’t play in an event helping the American Red Cross because that charity employs lobbyists.

Boehner neglected to mention it, but another glitch is that when the ethics committee permits an outside group to pay for travel for a Member and staffer, he or she may bring along a “family member,” but domestic partners of gays are not covered.

Boehner suggested that Pelosi join him in appointing a bipartisan task force like the Livingston-Cardin working group of 1997 that recast the ethics manual. We think it’s a good idea. Pelosi should look past Boehner’s charges of “chaos inflicted … by careless (or worse) Democrat rule writers” and agree that a clarification of the new rules indeed needs to be done.