Vulnerable GOP pair team up on reform

Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.), two of the House’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, joined forces yesterday to urge their party leadership to embrace their plan for a nonpartisan Office of Public Integrity to enforce House ethics rules.

Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.), two of the House’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, joined forces yesterday to urge their party leadership to embrace their plan for a nonpartisan Office of Public Integrity to enforce House ethics rules.

Wilson did not back Shays during his high-profile push for campaign-finance reform five years ago, but the two were throwing arms around each other’s shoulders yesterday as they vowed to convince fellow Republicans to support the integrity office. Lawmakers wary of giving outsiders the responsibility of monitoring congressional ethics defeated a similar Senate proposal last week.

“We Republicans need to step up to the plate,” said Shays, who linked the majority’s quest to deliver meaningful ethics reform to its future control of the House. “For people in the party to say, ‘Reform doesn’t matter’ … they are acting like Rostenkowski in ’94,” Shays said, referring to the House Democratic leader whose ethics travails helped Republicans gain the majority 12 years ago.

Wilson dismissed critics of the integrity office’s openness to outside ethics complaints from partisan groups. If the office’s director deems a complaint improper or politically motivated, Wilson noted, the filer and not the lawmaker will face punishment.

“If you do use the system for partisan purposes rather than purposes of public integrity, you will be banned” from submitting future complaints, Wilson said. The bill bars former members of Congress from serving as the director of the office and has provisions to ensure that the director cannot be dismissed for “frivolous reasons,” as Wilson put it.

Wilson and Shays have not shied away from questioning Republican leaders, calling for the ouster of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as majority leader months before he eventually ceded his post in the face of money-laundering charges. But Wilson’s Democratic challenger, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, has repeatedly pressed her on ethics issues, pushing her to return contributions from DeLay and criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Reminded of the Madrid campaign’s efforts to link her to DeLay and Abramoff, Wilson said simply, “I have no problem at all discussing ethics with anyone, anytime.” Preserving the ethical sanctity of Congress, Wilson said, is “more important than the outcome of any election, including my own.”

Shays’s history as a campaign-finance and ethics gadfly has led his Democratic foe, Diane Farrell, to focus her message on the Iraq war. Shays allowed himself a moment of partisanship during his appearance with Wilson, parrying Democratic allegations of GOP ethics obstructionism.

“For this ethics committee to have not acted for the whole year is not totally the fault of Republicans,” Shays said. “Democrats saw a great opportunity to take our mistake and magnify it, and they have.”

The House ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, recently has moved to end its long period of dormancy and begun investigating complaints against members. The Office of Public Integrity, modeled on the legislative branch’s Office of Compliance, would manage lobbying disclosure and enforcement in addition to investigating complaints on behalf of the ethics committee.

Like the Senate proposal for an integrity office, which could yet be attached to the upper chamber’s lobbying-reform bill through an amendment from chief sponsors Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the House plan would leave member discipline solely in the hands of the ethics committee.

Wilson, Shays and Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), co-author of the Office of Public Integrity bill, face an uphill battle in coaxing leaders of both parties as well as members of the ethics committee to back what some have called an “outsourcing” of ethics enforcement.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), for one, told reporters Tuesday that he does not support the bill.

“I think members are in the best position to judge other members,” Boehner said. He added that he does not expect to shift in his opposition and that “I don’t expect it to be part of our [lobbying reform] package.”

The integrity office’s chances for passage are “about as good as campaign-finance reform had in the early stages of the effort,” Shays said.

As the House drafts its lobbying-reform bill, once slated for unveiling by early February but still under wraps this week, both Shays and Wilson said they had yet to see a copy. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) today will hold his second hearing in seven days on related issues.

Wilson said she supports limiting the political activity of so-called 527 groups, which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars in unregulated cash into political contests since Shays’s campaign-finance reforms became law. But she hesitated to endorse her leadership’s decision to include 527 language in its lobbying-reform bill.

“We have to have to address this issue, whether it’s in this bill or another bill,” Wilson said. “These organizations are operating outside of the rules.”

Meehan and Democrats in both chambers have spoken against including campaign-finance elements in any lobbying-reform bill, fearing that the campaign-finance debate will fatally hamper efforts at bipartisan cooperation on lobbying and ethics overhaul.

There is one minor difference between the House and Senate public integrity office proposals. The House office would be available to advise members, staffers and lobbyists on compliance with ethics rules, while the Senate bill would confine inquiries for ethics guidance to the ethics committee.

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) also agreed to co-sponsor the Office of Public Integrity bill yesterday.

Another endangered GOP centrist, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), signed on to the proposal last week. Gerlach’s Democratic opponent, attorney Lois Murphy, has played up Gerlach’s ties to DeLay and released her own “clean House” pledge.

Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office did not return a request for comment on the Office of Public Integrity bill.