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Democrats’ Ethics Tactics Trigger Republican Backlash

When then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised during the 2006 campaign to “drain the swamp” if her party took majority control, she did not indicate what she would do with all the alligators run aground. As it turns out, she decided to unleash them on minority Republicans as part of her ethical purge — and right in the middle of an ethics reform fight, of all things.

[IMGCAP(1)]Nothing better illustrates how far House Democrats have come in imitating the high-handed tactics of their predecessors than the way they jammed the independent ethics office resolution through the House. Unlike the successful bipartisan ethics task force efforts of 1989 and 1997, this one did not achieve bipartisan consensus. But that did not stop the Democratic leadership from bulldozing ahead, breaking arms, legs and House rules in the process. (You would think they hadn’t learned a thing from Republicans’ disastrous attempts in the previous Congress to unilaterally change ethics rules.)

When the Rules Committee first met on the latest proposal, two questions posed to the task force chairman were very revealing. Asked why the task force had not consulted with the chairman and ranking member of the House ethics committee, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) said his group made a deliberate decision not to. When asked why they had not considered making the existing ethics process work better, he said he felt confined by Speaker Pelosi’s instructions to make recommendations only on an independent office.

Yet that’s the main reason task force Republicans parted ways with their Democratic counterparts. They concluded that an independent entity was not advisable and that the existing system should be strengthened. Unfortunately they waited until the night before the Rules Committee hearing to concoct an unbaked alternative that had some good provisions and some silly ones.

When the committee met a second time and cleared a revised Democratic proposal for the House, there was no formal report (or committee print) available on the proposal and its rationale, nor did the committee undertake an original jurisdiction markup. Although Rules Republicans attempted to make in order both the minority substitute and a bipartisan alternative by Reps. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), they were turned back on party-line votes, as was an open amendment process.

Instead, the Rules Committee reported a self-executing special rule that provided for the automatic adoption of the ethics resolution and task force chairman’s amendments. That meant that after one hour of debate on the rule, the vote to adopt the rule would also adopt the revised ethics resolution. Bada-bing, bada-boom!

The only avenue left to Republicans was to defeat the motion for the previous question on the special rule. That would give them control of an additional hour of debate and the opportunity to make in order further amendments or to offer motions to table or refer the package. (Minority Leader John Boehner [R-Ohio] indicated during debate he would prefer to send the whole matter back to a bipartisan task force for more work.)

The vote on the previous question was running in favor of the Republicans for the entire regular 15-minute vote, plus most of the additional 12 minutes the vote was kept open. At the 21-minute mark, the previous question was losing, 204-209. Some vote switching then took place to produce an outcome of 207-206. Republicans immediately raised parliamentary inquiries regarding the application of the Democrats’ new House Rule 20, Clause 2, which reads: “A record vote by electronic device shall not be held open for the sole purpose of reversing the outcome of such vote.”

When Republicans asked how they could enforce the rule, the Speaker pro tempore informed them they could raise a “collateral” question of the privileges of the House under Rule 9. However, when they asked when that would be in order, they were told it could not be offered until after the subsequent vote on adopting the rule. Since “collateral” presumably means “along with” or “at the time of,” Republicans were in a Catch-22 situation: Their enforcement mechanism would be moot by the time it could be offered.

Immediately after the subsequent vote adopting the special rule, Democrats adjourned the House, forcing Republicans to wait until the following day to challenge the questionable vote. Unlike the 2003 situation, however, in which Pelosi raised a similar challenge over the three-hour vote on the prescription drug conference report and was recognized for an hour of debate, this time Democrats successfully moved to table Boehner’s resolution without allowing him any debate time.

That same day, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the ranking member on the ethics committee, rose to offer a question of personal privilege over a letter the ethics chairwoman had made public the day before. The letter alleged Hastings had violated the committee’s confidentiality rule by circulating to Members an analysis by nonpartisan committee staff of procedural problems with the ethics proposal. However, as Hastings’ colleagues pointed out during debate on his question of personal privilege, the confidentiality rule applies only to ongoing ethics investigations, and not to critiques of pending legislation. But the damage had been done to Hastings’ reputation.

I had the pleasure of working with Hastings as a member of the Rules Committee staff. He is one of the most decent, honorable and conscientious Members I knew in my 28 years in the House. Moreover, he is among the rarest of Members: a genuine institutionalist committed to doing the House proud. He has proved his dedication and integrity time after time. He deserves better. This stain on his character is unwarranted and must be removed.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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