Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) have gone off on a tangent.
The top lawmakers on the House ethics panel are in the midst of evaluating the chamber’s ethics rules — the value of restrictions added in recent years, and whether some changes cause too much confusion for staff and mean too little to constituents — but now they’re talking about ice cubes.
Inside the committee’s office suite in the basement of the Capitol, Lofgren and Bonner are recalling an earlier round of reforms, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) curtailed ice delivery to House offices in 1995 and then showcased the move as an effort to trim Congressional perks and operating costs.
“I thought it was a great idea.— Lofgren said. “I could not make them stop delivering the ice.—
“And I thought it was a terrible idea because, as a young staffer, I used to go get the ice,— Bonner chimed in. “And I thought if you have three to four people deliver ice to all the offices, that saves time and effort instead of each office having to send a young staffer like me — I was the press secretary — to go down and get ice.—
Lofgren added, “The problem was what to do with the ice.—
“You know, in the South we used to have ice tea and iced coffee,— Bonner suggested, before returning to the topic at hand: “Look, there are some things that we can do and we should do to try to make it less confusing. And that hopefully will be something we have a chance to focus on.—
This is how the conversation flows between Lofgren and Bonner, the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, during a recent interview about the pair’s roles as the newest heads of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
Throughout much of the half-hour, the duo takes turns discussing the committee’s work — avoiding any reference to specific investigations — while occasionally veering into chit-chat and recalling their own days as aides on the Hill.
Forging a Relationship
The lawmakers’ evident rapport stands in contrast to recent years on the ethics panel, when conflict among top lawmakers at times curtailed the committee’s work, such as the partisan deadlock that prevented the panel from organizing for several months in 2006 under then-Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.).
Reportedly testy relations between Hastings and the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), then the ranking member and chairwoman, respectively, flared up in early 2008 over the release of internal committee e-mails and resulted in a public clash on the House floor.
Bonner, who served one term on the panel under Jones and Hastings, acknowledged such scenarios raised concerns when he accepted the top Republican seat.
“When your leadership asks you to do something, I don’t think you spend a lot of time debating the pros and cons to it,— Bonner said. “That said, it did weigh on my mind somewhat.—
“I had seen … some of the challenges of effective relationships between the chairwoman and our ranking member,— he added. “And just sometimes watching what seemed to be at times a relationship where different opinions sometimes led to not the type of relationship that I think the rest of the committee was looking for, and I don’t want to lay blame on Doc or on Stephanie. … But I did think about who would be the chairman or the chairwoman in terms of what type of relationship I would be able to forge with that person.—
While Lofgren is also a committee veteran, having served a three-term tour of ethics duty from 1997 to 2002, she said it was a remarkably different experience.
“In the years I had served, I think every vote was unanimous except for one and that was a procedural issue,— Lofgren recalled of her tenure, which included the panel’s vote to expel then-Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) from the House in 2002.
“It was very much about the House as an institution and making sure that the ethical standards of the House were upheld,— she added. “I approached it with that in mind.—
Before accepting their committee posts, the two lawmakers noted that beyond perhaps an occasional “hello— in an elevator, they had never formally met, much less served on a committee or on official travel together.
The pair finally met on Inauguration Day, while waiting in line to be taken outside to find their seats.
After they exchanged mutual introductions and congratulations, Bonner said he offered to do his best to form a harmonious relationship.
“I told her that I looked forward to working with her, and in the spirit of making this committee work and function, I hoped that we could agree 99 percent of the time, and she very gently but very convincingly said, We will agree 100 percent of the time.’ And we have,— Bonner said.
“This has been an interesting and educational process the last four or five months,— he added. “It has given me tremendous respect for the chairwoman, for her understanding, really for both of us to basically see the issues through the same set of eyes. We have not once disagreed.—
“That’s true,— Lofgren echoed. “Really, this is a unique committee. It’s the only committee in the House evenly divided. And although it’s chair and ranking member, it’s really like co-chairs, honestly.—
“What I’ve found is we talk probably every day,— she added. “Every time Jo has something to say … he’s got great insight and good experience. I’ve learned a lot from him.—
Both lawmakers raised their political differences at separate times during the interview, comparing Lofgren’s progressive background with Bonner’s more conservative stance.
“The issues before us are about the integrity of the House and making sure that the institution upholds its standards and that the public can have confidence,— Lofgren said. “It has nothing to do with political philosophy. It has to do with following the rules and being honest, and I think we’ve done a good job of listening to each other.—
An Inside Job
While much of the committee’s work is conducted in secrecy — concealing many of the decisions that the top Democrat and Republican make together, such as whether to review potential rules violations — Lofgren and Bonner’s rapport was evident in their selection of a new staff director and chief counsel in late April.
An extensive search netted more than 150 applications and a handful of candidates for the committee.
“We wanted to be as open as you could be that this was a vacancy, it was an important position, and it’s one that we wanted to solicit as many applications as we could,— Bonner said. “The chair and I were both pretty aggressive [and] hands-on in terms of reaching out to other people that we knew that might be interested in applying as well.—
Despite the influx of candidates, Bonner said he suggested the ultimately unusual decision to move a Democratic aide — Lofgren’s counsel on the panel, Blake Chisam — into the post, rather than an apolitical candidate.
“At the end of the day, since it is a position that the chair and ranking member should agree on, I assumed responsibility for throwing the chair a curveball,— Bonner said, explaining that he had been impressed by Chisam’s efforts on the panel during the search.
“I was surprised, but in the end I think it was a good choice,— Lofgren said. Chisam had earlier served on the House Judiciary Committee, where Lofgren heads the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.
Bonner added: “I am very proud that he accepted it. Let’s be honest. The committee has not always enjoyed a reputation outside in the larger community as being one that gets a lot done, and largely, that’s because we don’t talk about what we do.—
“But I think he has the right judgment as well as experience to be a great staff director,— he said.
Lofgren and Bonner, who served as House aides before winning election to office, also pointed to the importance of having an individual with experience on the Hill at the committee’s helm.
“This is a little bit of a different place than what some people might think at home,— said Bonner, who served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.). Lofgren served as an aide to then-Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.). “And so to have someone who understands the rules that we have and the regulations that we have and the obligations that we have, to me, that is an advantage over having someone who’s résumé strictly says, I’m apolitical,’ or I don’t have any partisan values or partisan stripes in my background.’—
Clearing Things Up
In addition to dealing with unspecified matters before the panel in coming months, Lofgren and Bonner said they hope to review institutional issues, such as the stringent travel and gift rules enacted in 2007.
“We do feel that there are a lot of people that are looking to see, can we get this operation functioning in a way that does answer some of the questions that are out there,— Bonner said.
When it comes to revised ethics rules, Lofgren suggested the panel may consider ways to revisit rules governing how it approves travel, as well as potential revisions to ease the process of filling out annual financial disclosure forms.
“There’s got to be some way — whole forests are falling in front of us — to streamline and still have the transparency so the public can see it and the accountability,— Lofgren said in reference to travel-related disclosures.
Lofgren said she does not expect to overhaul the existing rules but believes many changes could be made through “interpretation.—
“Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in terms of writing rules and regulations that the average person back home in California and Alabama really doesn’t care anything about,— Bonner said.
But the lawmakers also acknowledge the committee, with its particularly private nature, can at times be the subject of significant pressure.
“We have an obligation to serve the institution, to obviously serve the Members and the staff, but also to help restore confidence most importantly to the American people that this place is upholding the highest standards,— Bonner said.
Still, the current pressures on the panel are not unusual, Lofgren said.
“I can remember when I served on the committee a number of years ago, there would be articles in the paper, Why aren’t they looking at X, Y and Z. And you would know, actually we were looking at X, Y and Z,— Lofgren chuckles. “But you couldn’t say it.—
“That’s just the nature of the situation. If we’re doing our job right, which I’m committed to doing, matters that need admonishment will get it, and when that’s not necessary, there will be a different result. All we can do is play this straight up.—