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Pelosi Again Prods Hastert on Ethics

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to help resolve a lingering staffing dispute that has prevented the House ethics committee from beginning investigations into Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other lawmakers.

Despite several weeks of discussions, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the ethics committee, have been unable to reach an agreement on whether Hastings should be allowed to use his top aide, Ed Cassidy, to assert more control over committee operations that do not involve actual investigations. Hastings believes that having Cassidy as de facto chief of staff, but without the title, will allow him to make the panel more responsive to Members’ needs.

Mollohan, for his part, sees Hastings’ proposal as a clear violation of the panel’s rules on maintaining a nonpartisan committee staff. He and the four other Democrats on the equally divided panel have refused to allow Hastings to proceed with hiring a new chief counsel or more investigators, thus blocking an investigation of DeLay and other Members.

No talks between the two men are scheduled for this week, according to sources close to the committee.

The ethics staffing dispute comes after the committee was paralyzed for months in a partisan fight over three new ethics rules the House GOP leadership pushed through the chamber on the first day of this session. While those rules were later reversed, nearly six months into the 109th Congress, the ethics committee is still not functioning completely, despite calls from inside and outside Congress for the panel to investigate DeLay and other lawmakers.

Pelosi wrote to Hastert on this same issue two weeks ago but received no response. According to her May 19 missive, the California Democrat wants the Speaker to personally wade into the fight to get the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, in full working order before Congress adjourns for the week-long Memorial Day recess that begins Friday.

“I am writing to you again because I have not yet received a response from you and, I understand, Chairman Hastings continues to promote this ill-advised plan,” Pelosi wrote in her May 19 letter. “If the Standards Committee is going to begin to perform its important work in a timely manner, it is of critical importance that this matter be resolved before the Memorial Day recess. It is also evident that this will not occur without your intervention, which is needed now.”

Pelosi also strongly backed Mollohan in the staffing battle, arguing that Hastings’ proposal would violate ethics committee rules. “I must also stress that this is not an internal committee matter; it is a matter of complying with the provision of the Rules of the House that requires that the Committee maintain a non-partisan professional staff,” Pelosi wrote. “Furthermore, the manner in which this issue is handled now will likely set a precedent that will be looked to for years to come.”

Hastings’ office had no comment on Pelosi’s letter.

Pelosi took a shot at former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) as well. Livingston, who along with Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) oversaw a major revision of House ethics rules in 1997, recently wrote to Hastings to support his proposal. According to Livingston, Hastings’ idea of using Cassidy to assert more day-to-day authority over the panel was allowable within the guidelines adopted by the House eight years ago.

But Pelosi, a veteran of the ethics committee herself, strongly disagreed with Livingston’s views. “Finally, I am aware that former Representative Livingston has written to you asserting, in substance, that while the 1997 Ethics Reform Task Force rules mandate a non-partisan professional staff, they also give the committee chairman latitude to place an individual who is not elected to the Standards Committee professional staff in a senior, supervisory position on that staff,” Pelosi stated. “That view is entirely at odds with the plain meaning of the rules as well as my recollection of the task force’s deliberations, and it is completely unacceptable.”

Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s spokesman, said the Speaker was not going to mediate the Hastings-Mollohan dispute. “The Speaker believes this is an issue for the ethics chairman and ranking member to work out, and isn’t an issue for the [GOP] leadership to get involved in,” Bonjean said.

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