Even though both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently called for the ethics committee to investigate members of the other’s party — fighting words by any standard — neither took the next step of triggering an investigation, effectively pulling their punches.
Both stopped short of filing a formal complaint with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct asserting the committee must be responsible for initiating its own investigations.
But to many rank-and-file Members, those decisions mark an informal truce in the ethics process a little more than six months from Election Day.
“There’s no sense the ethics committee is doing or is about to do anything,” House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.
One freshman Democrat, who asked not to be identified, citing the sensitive nature of the ethics process, went further, asserting: “We’re not adequately policing our own Members.”
The current stalemate is reminiscent of the longtime truce on filing complaints that followed the ethics war of the mid-1990s.
When then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) took up the gavel in the 106th Congress, he vowed to bring an end to “frivolous” ethics filings.
“When I was on the committee, I was never aware of a truce. … What there was, however, was a recognition on each side that if there was a filing there would be a [retaliatory] filing,” acknowledged Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), a former ethics panel member.
That cease-fire held until late 2004, when then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) charged then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) with numerous violations of House rules.
But Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike and their aides now question whether a de facto truce has again taken root.
“I don’t get the sense there’s an explicit pact there, [but] there doesn’t have to be. … It’s like nuclear detente,” said a second Democratic freshman lawmaker, who also asked not to be identified.
Pelosi has called for an ethics committee inquiry into an earmark for Coconut Road in Florida. An aide to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has acknowledged inserting the $10 million allocation for the project near Fort Myers, Fla., into a highway bill after the legislation passed the House and Senate but asserted it constituted only a technical change. The road would benefit a developer who raised money for the lawmaker.
But the Speaker will not file the complaint herself, a spokesman said, asserting that Pelosi has made her position clear and expects the ethics panel to take action without further prompting. A complaint is not necessary to spark an investigation, but the ethics committee must consider a complaint, even if that action consists of dismissing it.
“The Speaker’s position is widely known, was clearly put out to the public,” spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. The ethics committee does not comment on its work and would not confirm whether it has opened an investigation.
Despite that position, Pelosi has not opposed an alternative proposal by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) requesting that the Justice Department investigate the incident. The House is expected to approve the probe as part of a highway technical corrections bill that is on today’s suspension calendar.
Across the aisle, Republican leaders have similarly called for the ethics panel to investigate whether Rep. Dan Lipinski’s (D-Ill.) chief of staff, Jerry Hurckes, violated House rules governing his dual roles as a House employee and an elected local official, while also refusing to introduce an official complaint.
In a recent interview with Roll Call, Boehner raised concerns that the ethics panel could become a “political weapon” if it must rely on Members alone to initiate investigation and called on the committee to execute its jurisdictional powers. “They have a job to do. They should do it,” he said.
But some senior Democrats and Republicans suggest that it is not an unspoken truce but a clash of personalities between Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that is slowing the ethics process.
“My sense is they don’t seem to get along very well, and that may be hampering the committee,” LaTourette said.
Despite an at-one-time cordial working relationship, the committee’s leaders have clashed publicly in the 110th Congress — notably in June over the panel’s decision to reopen an expired inquiry into actions taken by Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), newly indicted at that time, and more recently in March as the House debated legislation to establish an independent Office of Congressional Ethics to supplement the investigation process.
Referring to the apparent acrimony between Jones and Hastings, one senior Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, noted: “That also can create standoffs, too.”
Even as House Members are split over the specific cause of the stalemate, both Democrats and Republicans alike agreed there is a general frustration with the ethics panel’s inaction.
“The problem is the same problem we’ve had in the past. We don’t know what they’re doing,” said Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who headed a task force last year to review the complaint process and authored legislation establishing the new Office of Congressional Ethics.
Echoed Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who co-chaired that task force but did not endorse the resulting legislation: “You never know what the ethics committee is doing because it’s all confidential.”
Some Members, primarily freshman Democrats, expressed hope that a new established Office of Congressional Ethics — a six-member body that will conduct its own inquiries and issue recommendations to the full ethics committee — will expose more of the process to public view and diminish concerns that the panel is dozing. House leaders are reviewing potential appointees to that panel, but it is unclear when it will become operational.
The new ethics office faced significant opposition from Democrats and Republicans during House debate on its creation, and many lawmakers remain leery the new body will swing to the other extreme, providing overzealous enforcement.
“I think the most recent spate of ethics rules and regulations is going to make it difficult to separate out the most egregious offenses,” said one senior Democrat, who asked not to be identified. “I think somebody is going to have to pay a price first … and then maybe they’ll fix it.”