By Russell Berman - 01/07/11 11:23 PM EST
Three government watchdogs are calling for an ethics investigation into the reception a House Republican held in the Capitol while the 112th Congress was being sworn in on Wednesday.
The Campaign Legal Center and the Sunlight Foundation said Friday that the Office of Congressional Ethics should look into whether Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) violated House rules by soliciting campaign contributions for his swearing-in ceremony.
Fitzpatrick and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the House GOP’s campaign chief, missed the official swearing-in on the House floor to attend Fitzpatrick’s event in the Capitol Visitor Center. Lawmakers are barred from using the Capitol for political or fundraising activities. Members are allowed to hold swearing-in ceremonies that are paid for with campaign funds, but an invitation for Fitzpatrick’s reception listed a cost of $30 per person and included a standard form for making campaign contributions.
Sessions and Fitzpatrick late Friday sent a letter of apology to all 433 fellow members of the House for their absence during the official swearing-in, saying they were “deeply committed to fulfilling our role in our constitutional democracy by maintaining the integrity of the People’s House.”
“Our absence on the House floor during the oath of office ceremony for the 112th Congress —while not intentional — fell short of this standard by creating uncertainty regarding our standing in this body,” the lawmakers wrote. “While we immediately took steps to rectify the situation, we understand that our error allowed the integrity of this great legislative body’s proceedings to be called into question. We regret that this incident adversely affected House proceedings and apologize for any individual inconvenience our actions may have caused.”
The letter made no specific mention of the Fitzpatrick reception they were attending.
“OCE should certainly look at it, as the facts seem pretty clear that it was slated as a fundraiser,” policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, Meredith McGehee, told The Hill. “That [Fitzpatrick] was doing so, missing his swearing-in and then reading the Constitution just underlines how misaligned the system has become. In this instance, Fitzpatrick was the skunk at the garden party.”
The Sunlight Foundation also said Fitzpatrick might have
broken the rules.
“The Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee should determine whether or not this type of activity is in violation of the House Ethics rules,” the Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal wrote in a blog post. “From this end, it appears as though this fundraiser was not in meeting with the rules as laid out in the [House] manual.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said ethics rules bar the acceptance of any campaign contributions on Capitol grounds.
"Members may not solicit funds in the Capitol Visitor Center. There are no exceptions," Executive Director Melanie Sloan said. "The OCE should look into this violation as well as the fact that both members voted without having taken the oath of office in violation of a strict construction of the Constitution."
Blumenthal said in an interview that swearing-in ceremonies "can be paid for with campaign funds, but they cannot solicit campaign funds."
A liberal activist group, Americans United for Change, joined the push, urging its membership in an e-mail to demand an investigation into the incident.
Fitzpatrick and Sessions sent GOP leaders scrambling Thursday after the Speaker’s office realized they had voted several times on the House floor Wednesday despite not having taken the oath of office. The two men were photographed raising their hands and taking the oath via television at the Fitzpatrick reception, but after consulting Thomas Jefferson’s manual, the parliamentarian’s office determined that did not satisfy the requirements of being sworn in as a member of Congress.
The House Rules Committee was forced to recess a hearing on the healthcare repeal because Sessions had cast votes and introduced bills as a member of the panel. He also presided over the hearing for a period of time on Thursday before Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) swore him and Fitzpatrick into office on the House floor.
The full House voted on Friday to nullify the votes Fitzpatrick and Sessions cast before they were properly sworn-in. The party-line tally was 257-159, with more than two dozen Democrats voting with the GOP majority in favor of the resolution. Democrats had wanted a longer debate to examine the potential legal and Constitutional issues involved in the two men acting as congressmen before taking the oath of office. At one point, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) asked if the lawmakers would be paid for the day and a half before they were sworn-in.
Sessions and Fitzpatrick have not commented on the matter other than through spokesmen. A Fitzpatrick spokesman, Darren Smith, said Thursday there was no fee to attend his reception and that while some constituents paid $30 for transportation to Washington, the event was open to the public and others provided their own transportation. Smith did not respond Friday to a request for copies of the checks that attendees of the event gave to the campaign.
One potential question for an ethics inquiry is whether Fitzpatrick was covered under the House rules at the time of his reception, because, as a result of his absence from the House floor, he was not technically a member of Congress at the time.
Democrats have pounced on the incident as an embarrassment for the new Republican majority, but they have not called for an ethics investigation into the matter. In a statement Friday, Slaughter stopped just short of doing so.
“Despite their efforts to fix the issue and forget it, there continue to be questions about the nature of the event Rep. Sessions and Rep. Fitzgerald were attending,” she said. “I urge the Republican majority to use their investigative powers to clarify the circumstances surrounding the issue, and take any steps necessary to enforce the ethics of the US House of Representatives. We must not return to the Abramoff age of ethics violations being hidden from public view.”
Regarding an official request for an investigation, a Democratic leadership ship aide said: "Nothing has been taken off the table. Republicans set a high standard for this Congress, and they should be as concerned as anybody about this unconstitutional vote."
A request for comment from the Office of Congressional Ethics was not immediately returned.
— Susan Crabtree contributed reporting.
This story was posted at 3:22 p.m. and updated at 11:38 a.m. Saturday