Sparks Fly as House Admin OKs Bill

Posted May 8, 2007 at 6:53pm

As the House Administration Committee took its second crack at marking up a bill on national ballot-box standards on Tuesday, the panel’s ranking member released a letter expressing concern that the committee is not doing enough to assert its jurisdiction in its own backyard.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers’ (R-Mich.) letter to acting House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) came Tuesday morning before the panel took more than four hours to mark up a bill that requires a voter-verified permanent paper ballot at the polls. The bill passed 6-3 along party lines late Tuesday afternoon.

Ehlers’ letter reads as a laundry list of Capitol campus issues that the ranking member hopes the committee can begin to “refocus” on under its new leadership. With other Congressional panels already taking the lead in the 110th Congress on several of the issues he discusses in his letter, Ehlers said it will become “increasingly difficult” for the House Administration Committee to reassert its jurisdiction the longer it waits.

Ehlers’ letter seemed to touch a nerve with Democratic staffers on Tuesday.

“We’ve just come through six years of a record lack of oversight and the [Capitol] Visitor Center and other problems did not develop under this majority,” said Stanley White, Brady’s chief of staff. “Mr. Brady is eager to work with Mr. Ehlers to improve the conditions that the Democrats found House operations in when they took over the majority.”

White added that “Mr. Brady is confident the working relationship will be a very good and productive one.”

Brady assumed chairmanship duties last month after then-Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) took a leave of absence from her Congressional duties less than a week before she died of cancer. Her funeral was held last week in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, Ehlers said his letter was a way to reach out to the new chairman as he begins to organize the committee under his leadership.

“It’s just a passing of the mantle and hoping that they will continue some of the things we were involved in,” Ehlers said.

For his part, Brady said Tuesday that he’s planning to speak privately to Ehlers about the concerns that the ranking member raised.

“We’ll talk. The Congressman and I are good friends so we’ll talk and get into those,” Brady said.

Ehlers urged Brady in his letter to hold a hearing on the Capitol Visitor Center as the project begins to move from its construction to operational phase. In the 110th Congress, the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch has taken the lead on CVC matters by holding monthly progress hearings on the behind-schedule and over-budget project since February.

Ehlers also asked Brady to focus the committee’s attention on the stalled merger between the Capitol Police Department and the Library of Congress Police. The now four-year-old merger originally was supposed to be completed by 2006, according to 2003 legislation. At a hearing last week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, promised LOC Police union officials that her panel would be looking into the ongoing merger.

Ehlers also lists oversight of the Smithsonian Institution — an issue the Senate Rules and Administration Committee has picked up in the 110th Congress — and the the yet-to-be-constituted Commission on Mailing Standards in the 110th Congress as areas that need to be addressed by the panel.

Reached Tuesday afternoon, former House Administration staff director George Shevlin — who left the committee earlier this year to work for Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) — said that when Larson was ranking member of House Administration “he sent a similar letter to [then-Chairman] Bob Ney (R-Ohio) on the lack of oversight hearings. The difference between John Larson and the current ranking member is that he didn’t, and would never have made that letter public. He and Ney spoke about it over dinner. That’s a gentleman’s way of handling it.”

Ehlers and his Republican committee colleagues were quick to note Tuesday that they weren’t looking to criticize the former chairwoman for how the committee had run during the first four months of the 110th Congress.

“I talked to Ms. Millender-McDonald [about these issues] but, of course, she was not able to do it. … She had been ill for several months so she just really couldn’t do it,” Ehlers said. “So I thought I’d make a fresh start.”

“I think we had extenuating circumstances,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). “Obviously Juanita was far more ill than many of us thought and that explains a lot of things.”

“There are a lot of issues that this committee could be engaged in that we haven’t yet,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), but he noted that there have been “circumstances.”

McCarthy added that when he compares his experience on the committee today to his time working as a staffer for former House Administration Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) the panel “seems to be more Speaker-driven than it was in the past. … I just think the priorities are different in the new makeup than they were in the past and that makes it difficult.”

In what seems to be an acknowledgement of the widely held assumption by House insiders that Brady will be named by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the panel’s permanent replacement, Ehlers begins his letter by congratulating the Pennsylvania Congressman on his new position as chairman of the committee, noting that “despite the sad and difficult circumstances surrounding your appointment I am extremely pleased Speaker Pelosi has selected a Chairman with an established history on this Committee.”

In taking over the committee Brady also takes on the title of unofficial “mayor of Capitol Hill.” But Brady currently is hoping to become the mayor of a different city. The Philadelphia-based Congressman is in a tight race to become mayor of his hometown and the Democratic primary for that race is being held next week. Brady currently is polling in the middle of the pack.

If Brady were to win the primary he would be favored to go on to win the November election and if he were also selected to serve as Millender-McDonald’s permanent replacement, he would have to step down from that post in January when he left Congress.

In recent years, the House Administration Committee has functioned under chairmen who have served less than a full two-year term. Ehlers ran the committee for less than a year in 2006 after Ney stepped down from the panel when he was implicated in the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.