Ethics Blather

Posted March 9, 2004 at 5:23pm

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has a policy on alleged Republican ethics violations: Use them for propaganda, but don’t do anything serious about them. They are high-dudgeon press-conference material, but apparently too dangerous to actually use as the basis for complaints to the House ethics committee.

Pelosi won’t let fellow Democrats file complaints with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and she also opposes a House rules change to allow outside groups to file, a reversal of her position in 1997, when the rule went into effect.

The case of massive pressure brought on retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to vote with the GOP leadership on the Medicare prescription drug bill in November 2003 was so public and so egregious that the ethics committee had no choice but to launch a preliminary investigation into the matter — although the probe didn’t become public until Feb. 4, two months after it began. This announcement came after much public haranguing from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) but no filing of a complaint with the ethics committee by any Democrat.

Smith himself asserted in a series of interviews that he’d been offered $100,000 in campaign cash to help his son, Brad, win his seat. Then he was threatened with the possibility that Brad Smith would have a primary opponent if the Congressman didn’t knuckle under, which he didn’t do. Had the ethics committee not instituted a probe in this case, it might as well have declared itself out of business.

There are other cases, some cited by Pelosi the other day in a press conference, that deserve investigation, but won’t get it without someone filing a complaint. These include connections between Rep. Curt Weldon’s (R-Pa.) efforts to help Serbian and Russian businessmen and their awarding up to $1 million in contracts to Weldon’s daughter’s lobbying firm. And there are e-mails among officials of the energy company Westar hinting at favorable legislative activity in return for campaign cash.

Pre-1997, outside watchdog groups would have filed complaints about such cases. But, after furious partisan ethics wars first helped and then began to hurt the Republican majority, the GOP changed the rules, ending the procedure. Now, only a Member or the ethics committee itself can initiate an investigation.

Last week, eight watchdog groups called for a reversal of the rule, pointing out that in the past seven years, the committee has taken disciplinary action against only five Members — and in three of those cases, it was required to do so because the Member was enmeshed in criminal proceedings.

When Pelosi rattled off a list of alleged GOP corruption on Monday, she was asked whether she favored the rules change. She said she didn’t — and that outside groups could simply find a Member to file complaints for them. But the groups said no Democrat will file without Pelosi’s permission, and she never gives it. It’s a Catch-22. Or, all talk, no action.