House Passes Ethics Bill; Pelosi Hails Victory

Posted March 11, 2008 at 10:30pm

Despite lingering objections from rank-and-file Democrats and opposition from Republicans, the House voted late Tuesday night to establish an independent office to monitor the chamber’s ethics rules. The measure passed, 229-182, largely along party lines. Republicans nearly defeated the measure on a procedural maneuver, but House leaders held the vote open for at least 10 additional minutes to turn a handful of Democrats — sealing the win with the votes of Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). With their support, the bill was allowed to come to the floor. The victory followed an intense campaign by the Democratic leadership, particularly Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), to win over wavering Members, many of who openly questioned the need for an independent ethics office. “She’s making the case that this is something she believes is in the interest of the institution,” said one moderate Democratic lawmaker familiar with the Speaker’s pitch. The Member, who asked not to be identified, said the Speaker — who campaigned in 2006 on promises to “drain the swamp” — has appeared distinctly aggravated in meetings with lawmakers over the fact that the bill had twice been pulled from the House floor schedule in recent weeks as Democrats failed to secure needed votes. “I’ve rarely seen her so committed to anything,” the Member added, noting that he would reverse his earlier opposition and support the measure. Speaking on the floor late Tuesday night, Pelosi sought to ease Member fears about the new office, asking rhetorically about who might be the biggest target of any partisan attacks: “You are looking at her,” she said. In the hours leading to the vote, many Democrats remained adamantly against the bill, refusing to make commitments to leadership in hope of keeping the measure from reaching the floor. “There are still plenty of people trying to keep it from coming to the floor,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who spoke in advance of the vote on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from party leadership. The Member added that colleagues expressed a “lot of unhappiness,” as many acknowledged they would have to vote for the bill once it reached the floor. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) summarized the mood of many House Democrats: “This is a situation where there are no really good options. If it passes, it’s bad; if it loses, it’s awful.” Among those who had offered commitments were freshman lawmakers, many of whom campaigned last fall on promises of ethics reform, even though they had lobbied for a more robust investigative body. “If it were up to me, which it obviously is not, it would be stronger and have more teeth,” said Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), who co-authored an alternative with Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) that would have established a review panel equipped with subpoena powers. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), an opponent of the independent ethics office, offered the sole Democratic condemnation of the bill on the floor Tuesday. “If we have no respect for ourselves, how can we expect it from anybody else?” Abercrombie thundered in a speech that won applause from Democrats and Republicans. House Republicans disparaged the measure, reiterating earlier calls for the chamber to focus its efforts on overhauling the ethics committee rather than establishing a new review body. “They may have put lipstick on the pig, but it is still a pig,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), ranking member of the Rules Committee. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the ethics ranking member, on Tuesday released e-mails from the committee staff criticizing the proposed independent office because it could interfere with committee investigations. “I have been hopeful that Members would not be forced to vote up or down on any ethics enforcement proposal until those concerns were addressed,” Hastings wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. In response, House ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) issued a scathing letter to Hastings, accusing him of violating the committee’s rules on confidentiality by releasing the e-mails. “I do not seek to have sanctions brought against Representative Hastings at this time in hope that we can continue the work of this bipartisan committee,” Tubbs Jones wrote. “I do however want to make it clear that if he continues to release confidential communication, I will seek to have him sanctioned for violations of the Code of Official Conduct.” In addition, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired a task force that reviewed the ethics process and authored the final resolution, addressed the letter in the Speaker’s lobby Tuesday evening, asserting that the proposal had been amended to respond to some of those concerns. In particular, he noted that the ethics committee will be allowed to seize any ongoing investigation from the independent office when it deems necessary. Under the resolution approved Tuesday, the House would establish an Office of Congressional Ethics to initiate investigations and issue recommendations to the full ethics committee. The office will comprise six board members, appointed jointly by the Speaker and Minority leader. Current Members or lobbyists cannot serve on the board. The body will initiate its own investigations but will not accept formal complaints from Congressional watchdog groups or other entities. Capuano has suggested the office could begin many of its inquiries based on media reports or other anonymous submissions. Among the significant changes made to ease Members’ concerns, the office would be prohibited from initiating an investigation within 60 days of a primary or general election. Capuano said the committee could be up and running within 120 days, the time period in which House leaders must appoint the six board members. Since the measure passed is a House rule, it does not have to go to the Senate. The office’s budget would be determined by the Appropriations Committee, but Capuano has previously said he envisions a small office with board members serving in a part-time capacity. He said Tuesday he would like the office to be located on the Hill but said that decision has not been made by leadership. Capuano asserted that it could take many months to determine whether the office is an effective addition to the ethics review process. “I won’t know if this works for a year. It might fail. It might not,” Capuano said. Pelosi later echoed that sentiment: “There will be a time to revisit these rules as well.” The Massachusetts lawmaker said House Democrats acted appropriately in repeatedly delaying the measure to address lawmakers’ concerns, stating: “It shouldn’t be the kind of bill shoved down people’s throats.” Many House lawmakers critical of the resolution contended that Democratic leaders did just that when they opted to bring the bill to the floor as a self-executing rule, a rarely used procedure that strictly limits debate and circumvents the minority’s ability to offer any last-minute amendments. Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) defended the strategy. She said Democrats aimed to limit debate during a crowded legislative calendar that is expected to include floor debate on a budget resolution and the domestic surveillance program. “This is a very busy week,” Slaughter said, noting that Democrats last used the strategy in February when the chamber approved contempt citations against current and former White House aides who had refused to appear before the Judiciary Committee. Slaughter denied that the decision to limit debate was in response to Republicans’ successes in scuttling the majority’s agenda in recent weeks. The minority has used procedural maneuvers to force Democrats to pull two bills from the House floor — part of a GOP effort to draw attention to stalled debate on the government’s warrantless wiretap program — and prompted the first delay of the ethics reform bill after offering a last-minute alternative aimed at overhauling the ethics panel. “Everything gets it own consideration. We don’t prejudge what rules will be,” Slaughter said.