The House ethics committee yesterday voted unanimously to publicly admonish House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Reps. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) and Candice Miller (R-Mich.) for their actions during and after a highly controversial vote on a Medicare prescription drug program Nov. 22, 2003.
Admonishment is the least severe punishment that can be meted out by the ethics committee, although it is often done in a private manner, not in a public way the 62-page report does.
In findings from the inquiry, ethics committee investigators concluded that DeLay offered to endorse the candicacy of Smith’s son, Brad Smith (R), who was seeking to replace his father in Michigan’s 7th district this November, if the elder Smith voted for the Medicare bill, a top legislative priority of President Bush and the GOP Congressional leadership. Smith voted against the legislation despite heavy lobbying by his leadership and the White House.
Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the four-member investigative subcommittee that handled the Smith probe, “deliberated extensively” on whether the Majority Leader had broken House rules by offering his endorsement in exchange for Smith’s vote. They acknowledged that it is normal practice for a “Member’s conditioning support” for legislation in return for “future consideration” by party leaders or their colleagues, and admitted that it is one way for senior lawmakers to maintain “party discipline.”
But in this case, the subcommittee felt DeLay may have strayed over the line of acceptable behavior, although the full committee voted not to pursue the matter any further. “The promise of political support for a relative of a Member goes beyond the boundaries of maintaining party discipline, and should not be used as a basis of a bargain for Members to achieve their respective goals,” the report stated.
However, the ethics committee admitted it was treading on unexplored ground in reviewing DeLay’s interaction with Smith during the Medicare vote. “The issues raised by the conduct of the Majority Leader in this matter are novel and the implications of such conduct have never before been addressed or resolved by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct,” according to the report. “Indeed, the Majority Leader’s testimony indicates that he did not believe that he acted improperly under House rules during his encounter with Representative Smith.”
In a statement from his office, DeLay said he accepted the panel’s findings, although he added that he had not, to his knowledge, broken any House rules.
”During my entire career I have worked to advance my party’s legislative agenda,” said DeLay. “However, to this end, I would never knowingly violate the rules of the House. I deeply believe that as Members of the House we must conduct ourselves at all times in a manner that reflects credibly on this institution.”
The ethics committee is still considering whether to proceed with an investigatin of DeLay stemming from a complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas). While that DeLay case was discussed briefly by the entire ethics committee yesterday, the panel postponed for at least another week a vote on whether to proceed with that probe, according to Democratic and GOP sources. Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman and ranking member of the full committee, respectively, have made no recommendations yet on how to dispose of the Bell complaint, the sources said.
Miller, for her part, was found to have threatened to retaliate against Smith for voting against the Medicare bill. “Representative Smith interpreted Representative Miller’s statements to him during the vote as a threat of retaliation for voting in opposition to the billl,” the ethics committee report stated.
In a statement released by her office, Miller said she would not dispute the ethics committee’s determination. “I have read the committee’s report and accept their findings that I may have committed a ‘discreet violation of the rules,'” said Miller. “I also agree with the committee’s finding that there was no evidence adduced of a pattern of misconduct. It is now time to move on from this matter to important business on behalf of the people.”
As for Smith, the ethics committee did not find any evidence to support his allegation, made in the days after the Nov. 22 vote, that someone in the GOP leadership had offered him $100,000 in campaign contributions for his son in return for support for the Medicare legislation.
Smith was also criticized for failing to cooperate with the ethics committee during its six-month investigation, and “is accountable for making statements that risk impugning the reputation of the House.”
Smith, who was attending his retirement party in the Longworth House Office Building last night, could not be reached for comment.
Hulshof and Doyle interviewed 17 Members during their investigation, and collected several thousands pages of documents. With its report on the Smith investigation, which includes extraordinary detail on the events surrounding the Nov. 22 vote, the ethics committee sought to clarify “standards of conduct” for lawmakers and staff, specifically the prohibition against “the linking of official actions with personal considerations.”
The report also includes recommendations that House rules be amended so that Cabinet-level officials who are not former Members be prevented from being on the floor during votes. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was on the House floor during the controversial three-hour vote.