Cindy Sheehan disrupts Democrats talk on ethics

The war in Iraq and congressional scandals, twin forces that helped Democrats recapture the House and Senate, collided yesterday when antiwar protesters’ shouting forced House Democratic leaders to cut short a press conference hyping their proposed reforms.

The war in Iraq and congressional scandals, twin forces that helped Democrats recapture the House and Senate, collided yesterday when antiwar protesters’ shouting forced House Democratic leaders to cut short a press conference hyping their proposed reforms.

House Democratic leaders had gathered in the Cannon Caucus room to discuss wide-ranging and symbolic changes to the House rules, including a complete gift ban and new restrictions on travel, earmarks and legislative procedures when activists, including Cindy Sheehan, drove lawmakers from the microphones.

If the rules are adopted after the full House votes on them today, lawmakers’ ability to accept junkets from lobbyists will be curtailed, they will have to attach their names to earmarks and spending and tax deductions, credits, exclusions or preferences directed to 10 or fewer beneficiaries will be banned. The proposals also include measures to give the ethics committee power to pre-approve privately funded trips and require lawmakers to report more quickly the costs of the trips.

But when Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) stepped up to pronounce that Democrats fundamentally would “change the relationship between lawmakers and legislators,” Sheehan and her allies started shouting, “De-escalate, investigate, bring our troops home now!”

Emanuel’s aides said he was willing to talk to Sheehan and her cohorts, but he and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and incoming Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) headed inside the Cannon Caucus room when it appeared the shouting would not stop.

“They are not including the peace movement’s voice,” Sheehan said, adding that she would have talked to Emanuel and the other leaders had she noticed them waiting to listen. After the leaders huddled inside the closed-door meeting, the shouting stopped and the protesters left.

Most rank-and-file Democrats missed the commotion because they had retired inside their first meeting since recapturing the majority. But many lawmakers, including freshman Reps.-elect Chris Carney (D-Pa.) and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), said this was the first time they had been able to see a draft of the ethics reforms. They, and the rest of the caucus, will have 24 hours to review the rules changes.

Despite the short review period, which complies with one of the rules changes giving lawmakers 24 hours to review legislation before it is considered at the subcommittee level and on the House floor, Democrats whipping the proposed changes had run into little resistance, said House Democratic sources.

“They talked about it enough during the campaign. It’ll make some people uncomfortable and make lives a little more difficult,” a Democratic lobbyist with close ties to leadership said. “But they got a message from voters and this is something they have to do. They’d rather be in the majority.”

But some lawmakers raised concerns about whether they would be able to attend events in their district when House Democratic staffers briefed them in regional conference calls last month. For example, if a union held a barbeque could a lawmaker accept their food or if he visited a plant could he eat with the employees? The staffers did not have answers to the questions, said Democratic sources familiar with the calls.

Democracy21 and Public Citizen, government watchdog groups, favorably greeted the proposed rules changes.

Still, the rules contain some loopholes. Lawmakers would be allowed to accept trips paid for by universities so they can speak at graduation ceremonies and junkets sponsored by other non-profit groups, such as the Faith and Politics Institute, which has flown lawmakers to South Africa to educate them on civil rights issues.

In addition, Democrats decided to address more complex issues later. They did not propose creating an independent ethics agency. While top Democrats are predisposed to such an agency, Hoyer and others are concerned about problems that the independent counsels have encountered since 1980, said a senior Democratic spokesman. A bipartisan panel will convene later this year to consider a plan.

There is no provision to strip lawmakers of their pensions if they are convicted of a crime while serving in office. It is unclear if such a provision will be considered later this year, Democratic aides said.

Moreover, some lobbyists voiced concerns that the culture of Washington is so ingrained that lawmakers and staffers would find ways to circumvent the measures. For example, to get around the gift ban, lobbyists might start paying for meals under the guise of a campaign event, and businesses could create non-profit foundations to organize fact-finding trips.

The Democrats also renamed committees, granted power to the newly named Oversight and Government Reform Committee to depose witnesses and banned lawmakers-turned-lobbyists and their spouses from using the House gym.

Meanwhile, Pelosi has moved to cement her authority by placing staffers in key Democratic offices. Her spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider, will become the communications director for newly appointed Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Carrie James, a press aide to Pelosi who worked for Rep.-elect Patrick Murphy’s (D-Pa.) campaign, will become the deputy communications director for the Democratic Caucus. 

And on Friday evening, freshman Democratic and Republican lawmakers leave for Williamsburg, Va., to attend a conference sponsored by the Congressional Research Service.