Ethics Panels Facing Slow Start

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:47pm

With the exit of two indicted House Members and a convicted felon from the Senate — along with a handful of other lawmakers shadowed by federal inquiries — ethics reform appears unlikely to return to the spotlight in the 111th Congress.

House Democrats on Tuesday praised reforms enacted in the previous Congress, and Republicans have vowed to tout ethics as a key issue this cycle, but neither party was ready to appoint senior Members to the ethics panel — an assignment not coveted by most lawmakers — on the new session’s opening day.

Leaders in the Senate have likewise remained mum about the Ethics Committee, leaving the panel off of a list of chairmanships announced last month.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who had served as chairman, directed questions to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office Tuesday.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) served as vice chairman last cycle but is not expected to return to the panel given his new post as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In the House, three of the five Democrats on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are term-limited out of the assignment, including acting Chairman Gene Green (Texas) and Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.) and Mike Doyle (Pa.).

In addition, the panel’s most junior member — Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who was tapped to fill the vacancy created by the death of then-Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) — has said he does not intend to continue to serve on the committee.

That leaves Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) as the only Member expected to remain on the panel, and as a likely candidate for the chairmanship. Delahunt has not, however, indicated whether he would be interested in accepting the gavel, viewed by many lawmakers as the least desirable assignment in the House.

“The process is moving forward and the chairman of the committee will be named in short order,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Republicans are expected to retain four of the five lawmakers first assigned to the committee last cycle — Reps. Jo Bonner (Ala.), Gresham Barrett (S.C.), John Kline (Minn.) and Michael McCaul (Texas) — but must also replace Rep. Doc Hastings (Wash.), who had served as ranking member.

After those committee assignments are made and the panel is organized, it is expected to renew its investigation of Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

The ethics panel is examining allegations of a quid pro quo involving legislation in exchange for donations to a City College of New York center named in Rangel’s honor.

In addition to Rangel’s fundraising efforts on behalf of City College, the probe also includes Rangel’s ownership of a villa in the Dominican Republic and his failure to report rental income on that property, which led to unpaid taxes; his use of House parking facilities for long-term vehicle storage; and the lawmaker’s use of three rent-controlled apartments as his primary residence.

The New York lawmaker, who has acknowledged the unpaid taxes, has denied any wrongdoing related to his fundraising efforts.

Although the House panel had also opened inquiries into Reps. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and William Jefferson (D-La.) — both of whom were indicted on separate charges in federal courts and are expected to begin their respective trials this year — neither lawmaker is returning to serve in the 111th Congress.

Renzi, who is scheduled to go on trial in Arizona in March, did not seek re-election, while Jefferson was defeated in the general election by Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.).

Similarly, the narrow victory of Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) over Sen. Ted Stevens (R), convicted in October of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts for his home in Girdwood, Alaska, relieved the Senate Ethics panel from its own investigation or expected expulsion proceedings. (Stevens, who has denied wrongdoing, continues to fight the case in federal court.)

Also departing from the House are two Members — Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who retired, and Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who was defeated by former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D) — colored by their associations with jailed former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose wrongdoings sparked many of the lobbyist and ethics reforms enacted in the House.

In the meantime, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has vowed that his party will reclaim the mantle of ethics from Democrats, who regained the House in 2006 after campaigning on the slogan “culture of corruption” and accusing the GOP of abusing power during their 12-year majority rule.

“House Republicans continue to work to rebuild the bonds of trust between Congress and the American people by holding our Members to the highest ethical standards,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Two years after Democrats were elected to the majority in the House promising to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, they have instead continued trying to sweep their Members’ ethical issues under a rug. Obviously, we hope that changes in the new Congress.”

For their part, Democrats on Tuesday touted the landmark ethics reforms enacted in the 110th Congress. “Today, gifts from lobbyists are banned, the use of corporate jets is prohibited, the earmark process is transparent, all House employees are trained in ethics and an independent Office of Congressional Ethics has been established,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the House floor. They offered only a minor change to those House rules in the updated chamber regulations adopted for the 111th.

Nonetheless, government reform advocates are hopeful that the fledgling Office of Congressional Ethics proves a useful tool in ensuring Members follow House and federal laws.

“We’ll be watching that closely to see if [the OCE does] actually add something to the ethics monitoring process on the House side,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, noting that a successful office could be used to promote a similar effort in the Senate.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said: “It will be very important to provide adequate resources and budget for the new Office of Congressional Ethics if it’s going to be able to effectively do its work.”

The office, led by ex-Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), began organizing in late 2008 and has yet to conduct any formal inquiries.

While House and Senate lawmakers have sought to remain at arm’s length from the federal investigation surrounding former House lawmaker and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) — former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris (D) was refused entrance to the Senate on Tuesday — Sarah Dufendach, Common Cause vice president for legislative affairs, suggested the pay-to-play scandal could spur discussion about public financing for Congressional elections.

“More and more people are going to see the way we fund these campaigns leads to this kind of behavior,” Dufendach said, referring to allegations that Blagojevich sought financial favor in exchange for an appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. “While it is an off election year, this is a time when you do the groundwork.”