Revolt Forces Ethics Delay

Posted February 27, 2008 at 6:46pm

Faced with anemic support among their rank-and-file Members, Democratic leaders scratched an expected vote today on ethics legislation and said they will review a new Republican initiative before the measure returns to the House calendar.

The House was to vote to establish an Office of Congressional Ethics that would initiate ethics investigations and issue recommendations to the full House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, part of an ongoing effort to strengthen the chamber’s internal review process.

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced late Wednesday afternoon that the measure would be pulled from the floor schedule, in part to allow leadership and Members to review an alternative proposal unveiled by Republicans earlier in the day.

“We do expect to consider it soon but not [Thursday],” Hoyer said on the House floor.

A Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said House leaders, as well as the Rules Committee and a bipartisan task force led by Reps. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would review all the proposals in the next few days.

“Some of our Members obviously were concerned about it, too, so we wanted to have more time to hear about the [GOP] proposal,” the aide said. “We’re certainly going to consider it.”

Republicans announced their proposal in testimony before the Rules Committee, asserting that any changes should address the ethics committee itself, rather than adding an additional layer to the review process.

“If the ethics committee isn’t functioning properly, we should fix the ethics committee,” Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

Under the GOP proposal, the ethics panel would be retooled, with each of its members appointed jointly by the Speaker and Minority Leader, and the chairmanship would rotate between parties each Congress, regardless of which party is in control of the chamber.

In addition, Republican leaders suggested adding four former Members — none of whom could be registered lobbyists for at least two years preceding their appointment — asserting that those individuals would not face the same pressures as current lawmakers in their decision-making process. That suggestion could face constitutional questions, however, and Boehner later acknowledged he could reconsider it.

To make the committee’s work more transparent, the proposal would require the panel to publish monthly reports on its investigative activities, listing allegations and related actions taken by the committee but without specifically identifying Members.

In addition, the panel would expand the process to the public — filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997 — by authorizing the House Inspector General to funnel complaints from citizens and organizations to the committee. The public could then track its complaint via the monthly reports.

Members, aides and officers of the House also could request that the ethics panel acknowledge whether they are under investigation, and the committee would be required to respond publicly within 30 days.

The panel also would be subject to rules aimed at avoiding partisan deadlock over investigations. Any complaint that remains unresolved after a 90-day period would be referred to the Justice Department for investigation.

Democrats and Republicans on the Rules Committee urged additional review in a spirited discussion that ended without a vote on either matter Wednesday.

Capuano, whose task force spent nearly a year evaluating the creation of an outside review panel, said he issued nearly 20 different drafts during that time and would review the newest idea.

“I don’t think we’ve come to the end of our bipartisanship yet,” Smith said, adding that he expects to continue to work with Capuano on the measure.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said House leaders expect to return to the ethics overhaul next week. “There has been a consistent drumbeat for reform by this Congress and this leadership.”

But in recent days, rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers, even those who had said they would support the existing ethics measure — which Capuano introduced in December —offered lukewarm endorsements at best, with many privately conceding it is difficult to vote against ethics-related measures.

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) noted Wednesday that the creation of an ethics review panel made up of non-Members “bothers me somewhat.”

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) was one of several Members who expressed reservations about creating the outside commission because they favor overhauling the existing ethics structure instead.

“There’s no excuse for the current system not working,” he said, speaking of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. “That should be the vehicle to discipline Members.”

Clay also said that if leadership wasn’t happy with the way the committee is operating, then “they need to find new members.”

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said he would favor any measure that gives the ethics process “more accountability and more transparency,” but only under the current committee structure.

“I would certainly be willing to look at any measure that improves our current system,” he said.

Several Members spoke about their concern that partisanship could hijack the new ethics structure because an investigation could be initiated with the support of only two Members.

“I’m concerned about outside groups … filing complaints about Members. This is an invitation to our opponents, to our enemies, and to those who would just like to wreak mischief to come in and damage us,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

“At the end of the day, you can throw mud against the wall and though it falls to the ground, the stain remains.”

Cleaver said he was not familiar with the Republican proposal but had planned to vote against the Democratic initiative if it had come to the floor.