A government watchdog group accused Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) of violating House rules, asserting Tuesday that the lawmaker improperly used official resources to organize a recent “tea party— event at the Capitol to oppose health care legislation.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued its complaint Tuesday in a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which reviews potential rules breaches and recommends whether the House ethics committee should investigate.
The complaint, a four-page letter accompanied by 54 pages of news reports and transcripts of the Nov. 5 event on the Capitol’s West Front, asserts Bachmann may have “violated House rules by using her House website to organize a grassroots rally and by holding the rally on House grounds without a permit.—
Bachmann spokeswoman Debbee Keller discounted the complaint as “rumors— spread by a Democratic political organization.
“Rep. Bachmann simply encouraged Americans to exercise their right to petition and ensure their voices were heard,— Keller said. She referred further requests for comment on the complaint to the House Administration Committee, citing the need for an “objective opinion.—
House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson confirmed that the Nov. 5 event conformed to House guidelines.
“Initial review of the information provided indicates that the event held by Rep. Bachmann meets the necessary criteria to qualify as a press event. Within that context, eligible related expenses would be payable from the MRA,— Anderson said, referring to the Members’ Representational Allowance, the official office budget allocated to each lawmaker.
CREW’s complaint alleges that Bachmann misused her official Web site by advocating against the health care bill in a press release announcing the tea party event.
That announcement described the event as a “Health Care House Call’ on Washington Press Conference— and urged citizens to “tell their Representatives to vote no to a government take-over of one-fifth of our economy.—
According to the Member’s Handbook — guidelines issued by the House Administration panel that govern the use of official office budgets — lawmakers “may not include grassroots lobbying or solicit support for a Member’s position— on their Congressional Web sites.
In addition, CREW alleges that the Nov. 5 event, during which GOP lawmakers and other speakers addressed protesters opposing the House’s scheduled vote on health care reform, was a “demonstration— rather than a “press conference.—
If accurate, such a distinction would have required Republican lawmakers to secure a permit from Capitol Police to hold the event on the West Front.
“The OCE should also investigate whether Rep. Bachmann or other members of Congress violated Congressional rules by failing to acquire a permit for the demonstration and by falsely portraying it as a press conference,— CREW’s complaint stated.
But Republican Study Committee spokesman Brendan Buck — who wrote an e-mail in early November reminding House aides to refer to a “press event— and not a “protest— — said the Capitol Police were consulted about the event.
“Putting such an event together so quickly it was unclear at first what we were looking at, but after working step by step with the Sergeant-at-Arms, Capitol Police, and Architect of the Capitol, the proper, accurate, and permissible description was press event or press conference,— Buck said in an e-mail.
CREW alleged the event failed to qualify as a press conference, citing the lack of a question-and-answer session. “In this particular situation, it seems nearly impossible for anybody to view that as a legitimate press conference. Definitely no questions were asked,— CREW’s Melanie Sloan said Tuesday.
But Republican aides asserted lawmakers made time to speak with reporters following the day’s speeches.
The OCE does not discuss specific complaints and would not comment on whether the office will review the allegations.
Earlier this year, however, the OCE declined to take up a similar complaint against Bachmann, lodged by three Minnesota-based bloggers.
In a July 29 letter, bloggers Brian Falldin, Aaron Landry and Dusty Trice requested the OCE review whether an e-mail bulletin issued by Bachmann’s office in May violated House franking rules, which govern the use of mailings paid for with Congressional funds.
In that message, Bachmann urged automobile dealerships targeted for closure — an Obama administration task force urged both General Motors and Chrysler to reduce dealerships earlier this year as part of long-term restructuring plans — to contact the National Automobile Dealers Association for legal assistance.
The Minnesota trio asserted in its complaint that such a message violated House franking rules that prohibit Members from issuing any material that “advertises, promotes, endorses or otherwise provides a benefit to a political organization,— citing NADA as a political group.
In an Aug. 14 letter, the OCE responded to the complaint, noting it had referred the matter to the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, also known as the franking commission.
“In forwarding your submission, the OCE is not making any determination that your letter satisfies the requirements of the Franking Commission for a formal complaint’ nor does the fact that the OCE forwarded your letter give it any special status before the Franking Commission,— the letter stated.
Bachmann’s office said it had not been contacted by the franking commission about the May e-mail bulletin to date.
According to the Member’s Handbook, press releases — like the one cited in CREW’s complaint — are exempt from rules that apply to mass mailings, and it is not clear whether the franking commission would have jurisdiction.