Even before the House ethics committee has officially organized for the 109th Congress, panel ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) made an unusual public break with new Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and urged the House to overturn recent rules changes he said were weakening the ability of the committee to do its job.
Mollohan took to the House floor Tuesday night and asked the House to reverse several controversial changes to ethics rules it adopted on the first day of the new Congress, including a provision stipulating that ethics investigations cannot begin without a majority vote of the bipartisan panel.
Mollohan introduced a resolution designed to achieve that goal, although Hastings, as a member of the House Rules Committee, actually chairs the subcommittee on the Rules panel with jurisdiction over Mollohan’s proposal.
House Democrats and ethics watchdog groups are also pressing the ethics committee to begin its own investigation into the relationship between House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, focusing on a trip DeLay and several former aides took to England and Scotland in 2000.
But Hastings and Mollohan have not yet even met to begin discussions on a potential replacement for John Vargo, the staff director and chief counsel for the committee, and it may be several weeks before a candidate for that post emerges. Since a majority of ethics committee members must approve that choice, Democrats will have some say over the selection.
A number of senior Republicans, including party leaders, have suggested potential candidates to Hastings for the post, according to GOP sources, but the Washington Republican has not settled on a replacement for Vargo.
Vargo and another senior ethics committee staffer, Paul Lewis, were forced out of their jobs several weeks ago, although Vargo is still currently working for the panel.
Without senior staff in place, the ethics committee cannot complete action on existing cases, much less take up new ones.
For instance, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has not meet with Hastings or Mollohan to discuss his own dealings with Abramoff, an issue first raised publicly at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in November. Ney said in December that he wanted to meet with Mollohan and Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the former ethics chairman, to review his case, although that meeting never took place. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) moved last month to replace Hefley as ethics chairman following complaints from GOP leaders and lawmakers over Hefley’s handling of an investigation of DeLay.
Abramoff and Republican grass-roots specialist Michael Scanlon were secretly paid more than $4 million by a Texas Indian tribe to help it win Congressional support to re-open a casino shut down by Texas authorities. Abramoff, who asked Ney to include a provision in an election-reform bill in 2002 to benefit the Tigua Tribe of El Paso, Texas, never registered as a lobbyist for the Tiguas. The former lobbyist steered more than $30,000 in campaign contributions to Ney at the time he was seeking the Ohio Republican’s help. Ney has denied any wrongdoing.
The ethics committee is also involved in ongoing investigations of Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.). Weldon is being looked at for allegedly using his position to benefit his daughter’s lobbying business, while Conyers has reportedly used his office to conduct political work.
An investigative subcommittee was appointed in the 108th Congress to review a complaint filed against Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio). The subcommittee is looking into McDermott’s involvement in the leaking of an illegally taped December 1996 phone conversation between House GOP leaders.
Hastings declined to comment on Mollohan’s speech or resolution on Wednesday.
Mollohan, for his part, characterized his relationship with Hastings as “excellent,” and said he had given his Republican counterpart advance notice about his intention to go to the floor and introduce the resolution.
“We had talked about the rule [changes] prior [to the floor speech] and my discomfort with them. So he anticipated my doing this in some way,” said Mollohan. “I just felt that, at the end of the day, this is the remedy of choice. Let’s just change the rules and invite the whole body to do so on a totally bipartisan basis.”
Mollohan said he had no reluctance about going to the floor on a rules change, although several GOP and Democratic insiders noted that it was highly unusual for him to do so.
“I would hope that the Rules Committee would process it, consider it substantively,” said Mollohan. “And if they need to have additional input on this I would be pleased to provide it.”
Mollohan wants to get rid of or alter several ethics rules changes adopted by the House at the start of this session. The most controversial requires a majority vote by the ethics committee to begin an investigation after reviewing a complaint against a lawmaker for up to 90 days. Under the old rules, if the chairman and ranking member had not reached a decision on how to dispose of the case by that time, an investigation was automatically initiated.
The other rules changes deal with how a Member can dispute a potential punishment from the committee following a probe, as well as whether outside lawyers may represent more than one client with business before the panel.
The changes were pushed through in January by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and the GOP leadership. Democrats characterized them as retaliation for the ethics committee’s decision to admonish DeLay in two different cases last year.
Hastert declined to comment on Mollohan’s proposal, as did Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
But the Democrats’ recent strategy of criticizing the ethics process and accusing Republicans of infractions was a prominent subject at Wednesday morning’s GOP Conference meeting at the Capitol Hill Club.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) spent the bulk of his time at the microphone arguing that Congressional Democrats have no agenda and are seeking instead to “burn the House down.”
Reynolds criticized Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in unusually harsh terms, according to sources who were present, and received a standing ovation from his colleagues.
GOP lawmakers have privately threatened for months to file an ethics complaint against Pelosi, although Democratic aides have insisted she is prepared for that possibility. Pelosi had two leadership PACs raising money for her campaign for Minority Leader in the 2002 cycle. Pelosi’s PAC was later fined $21,000 for violating federal campaign regulations.
Pelosi also has pressed for another investigation of DeLay. National Journal reported on Friday that Abramoff billed a law firm that he worked for, Preston, Gates and Ellis, for more than $13,300 in expenses for a trip he reportedly took with DeLay and several of his former aides in mid-2000. House ethics rules state that a registered lobbyist or lobbying firm cannot pay for trips by a Member.
The travel records filed by DeLay and his staff state that the excursion was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative organization. That group could legally foot the bill for the trip. Abramoff was a board member for the organization at that time.
DeLay and his office have insisted that the Texas Republican filed the correct paperwork with the House and is not responsible in any way for any expense claims that Abramoff filed with Preston Gates.
Democrats disagree and are urging the ethics panel to look into the matter on its own authority.
“These are substantive allegations that must be added to the ever-growing DeLayGate scandal and fully investigated by the Ethics Committee,” Pelosi said in a statement earlier this week. “The House gift rule clearly states that lobbyists cannot pay a Member’s travel expenses, but the expense voucher submitted by lobbyist Jack Abramoff indicates that this is precisely what he did for Mr. DeLay.”