By Susan Crabtree - 06/03/09 07:43 PM EDT
The House on Wednesday approved a resolution requiring the House ethics committee to report on the status of any investigation into a now-defunct lobbying firm and its ties to lawmakers.
The unusual move by Democratic leaders came in the wake of steady Republican pressure on the ethics controversy and is aimed at giving vulnerable Democratic members political cover.
The word “actions,” would include any testimony, interviews or documents the panel has required from members and staffers, according to a Democratic aide.
It passed overwhelmingly, 270-134, with 27 Republicans voting in favor of it and no Democrats opposing it. GOP members who backed it included Reps. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), Ralph Hall (Texas), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Jean Schmidt (Ohio), Bill Young (Fla.) and Don Young (Alaska).
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is running for the Senate, also voted with the Democrats.
Seventeen members voted present including all 10 members on the ethics panel. Lawmakers who voted present who are not on the ethics committee included Democratic Rep Bobby Bright (Ala.), and GOP Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Doc Hastings (Wash.), Tom Latham (Iowa), Sue Myrick (N.C.) Ted Poe (Texas) and Greg Walden (Ore.).
The motion that passed the House Wednesday night referred the resolution to the committee. Technically, Hoyer’s resolution will only take effect if the ethics committee passes it in a markup and the full House adopts it. Democratic leaders, however, believe the resolution sent a strong message to the committee and the panel will react by moving forward with an investigation into PMA-related misconduct and reporting on its activity on its own.
The resolution could force the ethics panel to implicate several senior Democratic appropriators and their staff, including Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), whose office the FBI subpoenaed for documents last week, as well as Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.). All three lawmakers are top recipients of PMA campaign contributions and have doled out millions of dollars in earmarks to the firm’s clients.
Among other matters, the FBI is investigating whether some PMA campaign contributions were made by fraudulent “straw donors.”
The Democratic leadership resolution counters a measure Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has offered nine times. The Flake resolution would launch an ethics investigation into a link between PMA Group campaign donations and the earmarks its clients have received and require the panel to report its findings to the full House within two months. Democrats have managed to kill debate on the resolution each time Flake has offered it, but the ethics measure has gradually picked up more Democratic support. The first time Flake offered it only 17 Democrats bucked their leaders and voted with Flake; the last time 29 Democrats broke off.
Flake had been open to supporting any Democratic effort geared toward shaking the ethics committee into action on the PMA matter but he rejected Hoyer’s resolution because it only calls on the ethics committee to reveal whether or not it is looking into the matter.
If Hoyer’s resolution had been strong enough, Flake said he would have stopped offering his own. Requiring the ethics committee to make an announcement about PMA in a month and a half would postpone the additional scrutiny until after the busy appropriations season when members, including Murtha, are still directing earmarks to former PMA clients, he said.
A spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the resolution a “joke” designed to provide political cover without requiring an ethics investigation. He also noted that ethics committee could and should say whether it has opened an investigation into the PMA matter right now.
“It is the tiniest speck of political cover from a Democratic leadership that has voted time after time to block a real investigation of PMA,” said Michael Steel. “It doesn’t even require an investigation; it simply inquires whether there is one — and gives the committee a month and a half to reply. That’s ridiculous. They can and should answer that question today. In the meantime, the swamp waters continue to rise, and this won’t fool the American people.”
Hoyer’s resolution appealed to some vocal Democrats who have expressed concerns that leaders weren’t doing enough to address the PMA ethics issue.
“I think it does address the serious concerns some members have raised about perceptions that Congress is only capable of reforms after a major scandal hits,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who has voted in favor of Flake’s resolution every time it has been offered.
In closed-door leadership meetings over the last few months, Hoyer has reportedly tried to convince Democrats to vote in favor of Flake’s resolution as a way to defuse the PMA issue. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has a close friendship with Murtha, and House ethics committee chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) have resisted, arguing that such an investigation would be overly broad and set a dangerous precedent for other lawmakers who have requested earmarks for entities or clients of lobbying firms who have showered them with campaign contributions.
Earlier this week, Republicans were concerned that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have been coordinating their activity with Lofgren. House rules prohibit any coordination between leaders, or rank and file members, and the ethics panel.
Rep. Jo Bonner (Ala.), the ranking Republican on ethics, was so concerned about the coordination that he approached Lofgren on the House floor Tuesday night to discuss it with her, a Republican source said. Minutes later, Hoyer was seen talking with Lofgren.
Bonner and Lofgren would not confirm what was said or whether those concerns had been put to rest. However, there was no sign of any animosity between the two Wednesday when the pair greeted each other warmly after a vote.
“That was a private conversation,” Lofgren said.
Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami flatly denied any coordination between the ethics panel and Democratic leaders.
“There has been and there will be no coordination,” he said. “As a longtime member of the ethics committee, the Speaker knows and honors the rules: Never discuss specifics cases, timetables or internal deliberations of the ethics committee with the chair or any member of the committee.”
Elshami acknowledged that Democratic members “have expressed their views about the Flake resolution.”
“The majority agree that it is a diversion designed to score political points, would make the ethics committee unworkable, and set a dangerous precedent,” he said.