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House Leaders Have a Fiduciary Duty to Protect the Institution

Let us start with Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who took to the House floor last week to say that the Republican health care reform plan is to have people “die quickly.— It was an over-the-top, outrageous comment that has no place in civil discourse.

[IMGCAP(1)]But, of course, it was not the first. Let’s review the bidding on House floor statements on this specific subject.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) said the House Democrats’ bill “essentially said to America’s seniors: drop dead.— Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said on the floor in July that the public insurance option in the Democrats’ plan “is gonna kill people.— Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) suggested the Democrats’ plan might “put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.— Ouch, ouch and ouch. And let’s not forget a double-extra ouch for Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst on the House floor during President Barack Obama’s speech to the joint session on health care reform.

The House response to Wilson, after he refused to apologize on the floor, was to vote to chastise him formally, a mild punishment that sadly did not get the support of the Republican leadership, although several of the best House Members on the GOP side of the aisle courageously voted in favor. Predictably, Grayson’s bad behavior generated outraged calls from Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his Republican colleagues for Grayson to apologize. Predictably, he refused. And sadly, predictably, the Democratic leaders closed ranks behind Grayson.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at least did not support or endorse the Grayson remark and called on all miscreants to apologize. She is right — but we deserve more from the Speaker than a response that if one apologizes, all should apologize. It is up to the Speaker to rise above the partisan fray and put her own colleague on the spot, even if it is unfair to let the others off the hook. The only way to stop this nonsense is to create some level of shame for those who perpetrate it.

The Speaker and the Minority Leader have solemn fiduciary responsibilities to protect the integrity of the House. When Members take to the floor to say that elected Representatives on the other side of the aisle are not acting in good faith with their ideas but are murderers-in-waiting, it is outrageous and wrong, and it stains the basic integrity of the House (and by extension the voters who put the elected Representatives in place). Pelosi and Boehner need to join together and put an end to this damaging foolishness and out-of-control rhetoric.

That is only one item on the list for fiduciary action on the part of Pelosi and Boehner. Another is the integrity of the ethics process — a particularly important priority given the impending issues involving some of the most powerful Members of the House. Whatever action, if any, is taken against Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.), it is critical that the broader community sees the ethics process as fair — neither an “old boy network— trying to let big fish off the hook nor a group of people out for a partisan vendetta.

But the process is under a cloud via the unfortunate public flap between the House ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and the independent Office of Congressional Ethics over one case referred by the former to the latter, that of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) The OCE had sent a report to the ethics committee several weeks ago, with a detailed body of testimony and evidence, saying that there was reason to believe Graves had committed a substantive violation of House standards. Forty-five days later, the ethics panel exercised its prerogatives under House rules to take another 45 days to review the report — but also issued a public broadside against the OCE, saying in effect that the OCE’s unanimous recommendation for further action in this case had been polluted by its withholding information from Graves and his lawyers that might have been exculpatory.

That is a truly inflammatory charge. It has been forcefully rebutted by the co-chairmen of the OCE, former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), joined by all their colleagues, with a joint statement noting that the information in question was either in Graves’ or his lawyers’ possession or not pertinent to the OCE’s findings; indeed, in some cases, the information cited had come from Graves or his staffers.

This is a particularly curious case, given that the issue here is whether Graves called a witness to testify who was a business partner with Graves’ wife, on an issue related to that business, and did not disclose the relationship — and that this was the second time Graves had done this, and he said after the first incident that he had made a mistake! So there seems to be a violation of standards on its face.

But there might be mitigating circumstances. And the very public charge of bad faith or malfeasance on the part of the OCE is so serious that we need to be sure that the full report that the OCE submitted to the ethics committee is released on the timetable that House rules require, which in this case would be Oct. 31. Then objective observers can look at what the OCE sent to the ethics panel and judge the facts.

Many outside observers are nervous that the ethics committee will use its charge of bad faith to refuse to publish the report, which would be a serious blow to the independence and vitality of this new and important component of the ethics process — one that, I might add, was bitterly opposed by many House Members and came into existence only because of the forceful efforts of Pelosi. Boehner opposed the office but, to his great credit, picked superb choices to fill his party’s slots. A lot of Members, including many under some real or potential investigation, would love to see the OCE disappear. The ethics committee, sadly, seems to see the OCE not as an asset, taking some of the burden and cloud of suspicion that always surrounds the ethics process off its shoulders, but as a turf rival.

I do not doubt the integrity or good faith of Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the chairwoman and ranking member of the ethics panel, respectively. But I also know that Skaggs, Goss, former Reps. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) and Abner Mikva (D-Ill.) and their colleagues on the OCE who were unanimous in their report on Graves, as they have been on every report that they have sent on to the ethics committee, would never do anything untoward.

I hope and expect that we can chalk this dispute up simply to differences in the interpretation of data. But we cannot ignore the wider implications of the dispute, including the ugly, public spat at a critical time for ethics integrity in the House. This requires Pelosi and Boehner to step up and intervene, making sure that the independence of the OCE is preserved and that the ethics committee, under its strong leadership, fills its proper role.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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