In ethics panel's travel rules, some see sign of partisan thaw

Members and aides accustomed to a House ethics committee mired in partisan gridlock are welcoming the panel’s new rules for optional certification of private travel, but government watchdogs critical of the House’s incremental changes to lobbying and ethics rules remain unconvinced.

The ethics committee late last week quietly released the outline of a voluntary pre-screening process for private trips accepted by House employees. The outline, which offices and trip sponsors were still digesting yesterday, is aimed at clarifying an amendment to this month’s House lobbying and ethics bill that required the ethics panel to recommend changes to the chamber’s travel rules by June 15 and follow up with a permanent certification process.

The bipartisan deal on private travel comes as both parties have exchanged bitter salvos on lobbying reform.

Despite House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) original hope of completing a conference on the lobbying bill by Memorial Day recess, few on the Hill believed the June 15 deadline would become law in time for the ethics committee, also known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, to comply with it.

So Ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, quickly  worked out a voluntary travel screening process. Berman assumed his post three weeks ago after Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) stepped down from the panel to battle brewing ethical and legal troubles.

Hastings and Berman helped hammer out the amendment, originally offered by Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), that replaced the lobbying bill’s temporary private travel ban with an earlier deadline for ethics committee pre-approval.

“This certainly captures the spirit of what it was they were trying to do,” said one aide to a House member who worked on the private travel amendment. “Clearly this was an attempt by people who don’t usually agree on anything” to create a workable alternative to banning private travel, the aide added.

Another House aide familiar with the negotiations that led to the travel amendment, which were described as unusually member-driven, said the ethics committee’s action would provide at least some certainty for lawmakers and trip sponsors if the lobbying bill does not become law this year.

“If we have different leadership in the next Congress, we might take a different direction then,” this aide said. “One small step forward has been taken, and that’s a good thing. Still, more steps need to be taken.”

The panel’s relatively rapid progress on setting trip-certification standards hints at a significant thaw between Democratic and Republican members of the ethics committee. Hastings’s frustration with Mollohan mounted last August after the Democrat rebuffed Hastert’s request that the committee create a trip pre-approval process, but the chairman and Berman have a good working relationship that helped the private-travel amendment succeed with broad bipartisan support.

Berman’s cooperation with Hastings suggests that the 12th-term lawmaker is intent on playing more than a caretaker role as top Democrat on the ethics panel.

Watchdog groups that have called constant attention to potential loopholes and inadequacies in both chambers’ ethics bills, however, are not placated by the ethics committee’s attempts at reform.

“The point of this is for members who want to get cover from their ethics committee,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “If the travel isn’t going to be something looking too bad, they could actually submit this and get pre-approval. The members who are going on junkets to Scotland won’t do this.”

The committee’s outline notes that no member would face a penalty or punishment if they do not participate in voluntary travel pre-screening. Certification of trips must be sought by the private sponsor rather than the public official and would require submission of details on the travel itinerary, agenda, guest list and payment of travel expenses.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, who endorsed Hastert’s original call for a ban on all private trips, played up the amendment’s acceptance by voice vote on the floor.

“This got watered down and watered down to the point that it was killed in a sophisticated way where members didn’t even go on public record,” Wertheimer said. “What we have here is a continuation of the system that caused all the problems in the first place, and that is not going to be solved by pre-approval by a non-credible House ethics committee.”

Two of the nine requirements for ethics committee pre-approval ask for “a representation” that no lobbyist or lobby firm is footing the bill for travel and that no outside group has earmarked money for a particular trip. That second rule appears intended to prevent nonprofits from being used as conduits for lobbyist-paid travel to circumvent House rules, a technique employed by infamous GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Though it is unclear what level of “representation” the ethics committee will require, House aides said the voluntary process now in effect could prove to be a helpful trial run that produces stronger, permanent pre-screening rules in the future. One well-received travel-screening proposal, written by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), would treat trip documentation as official testimony and subject sponsors to criminal penalties if they provide false statements.

“I suspect that, at least initially, they are trying to wean people into a more restrictive regime,” said one aide to a member who sponsored the travel amendment.

The Heritage Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government lobbied against the temporary travel ban as originally offered by Hastert, arguing that they would be unable to plan new-member orientations for the 110th Congress without some measure of certainty about House rules. Both groups offered qualified support for the ethics committee’s new certification process.

“Hopefully we can use this as a platform for being able to try to structure these trips,” said Danielle Doane, director of House relations for Heritage. “Worse than not knowing [about new rules] is this kind of tentativeness on both sides and the chilling effect it has.”

Yet the conservative think tank is “still up in the air,” Doane said, on whether to hold a second annual members’ retreat cosponsored by Pepperdine University — in scenic Malibu, Calif.

The Kennedy School has not yet decided if it will seek ethics committee pre-approval for its congressional travel schedule, but David King, associate director of the school’s Institute for Politics, said the debate over banning private trips has already hurt educational efforts across the country.

Industry trade associations were more pleased by the ethics committee’s move, perhaps reflecting a higher likelihood of members and aides balking at attending business-sponsored conferences and speaking tours.