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Conservatives Target Pelosi Aide

House Republican conservatives are crying foul over what they allege to be the undue influence of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) chief of staff, John Lawrence, in the passage of legislation Monday designating parts of his hometown of Paterson, N.J., as a national park. The designation could result in millions of federal dollars going to the impoverished area.

The House passed the bill under suspension of the rules, 252-122. Suspension bills require two-thirds support for passage.

Lawrence told Roll Call he had nothing to do with the development or passage of the legislation, and he said he has never lobbied anyone on the issue.

But the House GOP conservatives say they intend to fight the measure in the Senate, where companion legislation has been offered by Democratic New Jersey Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez.

A GOP aide said they would make Lawrence a focal point of their opposition.

Republicans point to Lawrence’s attendance at a June 28 Natural Resources Committee markup of the bill. During the markup, Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va) first identified Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), the sponsor of the Paterson Great Falls National Park Act, and then took the unusual step of also pointing out Lawrence’s presence at the meeting.

According to a transcript of the meeting, Rahall told his colleagues that he also would like to “note at this time, there is another distinguished visitor present who happens to be the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. John Lawrence, who must call this his hometown, I believe, and has been back there nodding very strongly ‘yes’ to everything that the gentleman from New Jersey has been saying. And he is the former Staff Director of this committee, I might add, as well to [former] Chairman George Miller.”

Neither Lawrence nor any of his family members have lived in Paterson for decades, according to Lawrence, and they have no financial interests in the area. Lawrence told Roll Call that he attended the hearing simply out of civic pride and that he believes any staff member should be allowed to attend hearings affecting their home towns. “I would not only hope but encourage any staff person whose hometown is up for a national park’s designation to take five minutes to go and listen to the testimony,” Lawrence said.

But Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), who is organizing opposition to the proposal, called Lawrence’s attendance “one of the most unprecedented strong arms I have ever seen. … I’ve never known a committee chairman to stop the proceedings to single out a staffer.” Hensarling argued that given Lawrence’s position as the most powerful staffer in the House, his presence in the meeting cast a shadow over the proceedings and was tantamount to Lawrence “standing in the room and staring everyone down … and next thing you know everyone’s voting for it.”

Lawrence dismissed questions about his presence at the hearing as an “idiotic and absurd thing to say. I attended part of the hearing because I’m very proud of my hometown.” He also stressed that the bill was “designed with zero input from me” and that he has never discussed the issue with Members or staff.

It is not unprecedented for the hometown or other institution closely connected to senior leadership aides to see benefits. For instance, Aurora University, the alma mater of Rep. Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) former chief of staff, Scott Palmer, benefited from Congressional earmarks during Palmer’s time in the Speaker’s office. Nine months after the university gave Palmer an honorary degree, Hastert’s office steered through a $9.8 million earmark for the school to construct a teacher training institute.

The Paterson bill would designate a 109-acre portion of Paterson as a national park. Local officials in Paterson, which is economically depressed, as well as the state’s entire Congressional delegation, have backed the proposal, which would include the building of an apartment complex, a microbrewery and climbing wall, as a way to boost the economy.

But in a report requested by Pascrell, the National Park Service found that the area is not suitable for designation as a national park. Likewise, NPS Deputy Director Daniel Wenk in testimony to the committee this spring also laid out the service’s reasoning for rejecting the designation.

Lawrence said the high profile of the bill — which has led to editorials in The New York Times and other papers — played a part in his decision to attend the hearings because of Paterson’s poor economic health and the need to redevelop the area.

Paterson is “a very poor city that is struggling to improve and develop its resources,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence also pointed out that he served on the Natural Resources Committee for years while he worked for Miller and that if he had a significant interest in the issue beyond his connection to his hometown, that would have been the time to press the issue. “I was the staff director of the Resources Committee … if I had wanted to make it a national park, then would have been the appropriate time to do it.”

Hensarling, however, argued that Lawrence’s presence was inappropriate and is a sign of what Republicans have argued is a lack of commitment to Pelosi’s 2006 campaign pledge to reform Congress. “If this is her definition of honesty and reform, it helps explain why Congress has such low public opinion ratings.”