Dems facing a dilemma on ethics slot

Should their consistent criticism of the Republicans’ “culture of corruption” help win them control of the House this fall, Democrats could face a vacancy at the helm of the very committee charged with playing ethical policeman.

Should their consistent criticism of the Republicans’ “culture of corruption” help win them control of the House this fall, Democrats could face a vacancy at the helm of the very committee charged with playing ethical policeman.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) reluctantly assumed the ranking member’s post at the House ethics committee two months ago, insisting that his reign as senior Democrat be temporary. But since Berman’s arrival, the ethics panel has started three new probes and created a voluntary approval process for member travel, with Berman displaying a warm rapport with Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that Mollohan noticeably lacked.

Mollohan continues to weather the federal probe of his earmarks and real-estate investments that prompted him to step down from the panel, a complex inquiry that could remain active well into next year. Still, whether Berman will or should extend his stay at ethics — as a potential chairman, if Democrats take the House — remains an open question.

“Many of the decisions he has been making on the ethics committee have not been positive or constructive movement for the ethics process,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s ethics and campaign-finance lobbyist, who nonetheless stressed his respect for Berman. “It’s been a little disheartening to see Berman participate with Hastings to codify what I consider a very negligent system … I was more impressed with Mollohan’s performance.”

Watchdog groups have continued to charge that the panel, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is shirking its disciplinary duties even as Berman’s presence appeared to rouse it from a session-long stalemate.

An independent Office of Public Integrity is needed to credibly monitor members for ethics violations, the watchdogs say, and the committee should launch more investigations to join those now scrutinizing Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.) and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.).

“Berman’s performance, there have been some positive signs,” said Mike Surrusco, ethics director at Common Cause. “He seems to have at least gotten them moving, so I’ll give him that.”

Yet “if Mollohan gets cleared,” Surrusco added, “I don’t see why he should be disqualified from resuming his place.”

Democrats have hammered the GOP for its ties to criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, spurring Republicans to use Mollohan and Jefferson’s troubles as a counterweight, but Surrusco and other watchdogs say corruption remains a Congresswide liability no matter who presides over the ethics committee.

“I don’t see the problems of this committee being cured or exacerbated by individual members of the committee at this stage,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “Whatever role Berman may be playing, he’ll be gone in three months. That’s the problem here: You need an institutional system that works, and we don’t have one.”

Republicans have privately sought to turn the committee’s progress into ammunition against Mollohan, who decried staffing and rules changes Hastings proposed after taking the ethics gavel early last year. Democrats, including Berman himself, dismiss charges that Mollohan was obstructing the committee as unfairly partisan.

“It’s pretty easy to say, ‘He’s gone and everything’s great because Howard’s there,” Berman spokeswoman Gene Smith said. “But Congressman Berman would have done the exact same thing [as Mollohan] under the exact same circumstances.”

Smith also hinted that Democrats could be in the market for a new ethics point man in 2007. Berman “was asked [to serve] for this Congress, and his agreement was for this Congress,” she said. “That’s what he anticipates, this Congress.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not yet asked the Californian to stay on, spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said, calling the matter “a members-only discussion” and reiterating Pelosi’s confidence in Berman. “Any decision about next year will be made next year,” Crider said.

Republicans echo Pelosi’s high regard for Berman, who took a previous turn as ethics ranking member from 1997 to 2002. The redistricting deal struck between Berman and the Golden State GOP to protect incumbents’ hold on California congressional seats helped burnish the otherwise liberal lawmaker’s good reputation with Republicans.

“You really want to understand Berman? He’s a guy who knows how to get things done,” one senior Republican aide said. “He’s the guy who got redistricting done in California.”

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) gambled his political capital last year on a state ballot initiative to create nonpartisan redistricting, Berman secured Federal Election Commission (FEC) consent to avoid McCain-Feingold limits and raise soft money to fight the plan. His partner in that FEC petition was Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), a member high on watchdogs’ and Democrats’ ethics hit lists for his ties to Abramoff.

“My guess is that Berman is strongly partisan ordinarily in what he believes in, but we never had a vote that wasn’t unanimous,” said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who preceded Hastings as ethics chairman and spent several years working closely with Berman. “We got along beautifully.”

The duo’s chemistry was honed during the committee’s high-profile expulsion of Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio). Hefley got along equally well with Mollohan, but he advised Democrats to leave Berman in place until at least next year.

“We can’t afford to have the ethics committee, for whatever bad feelings are there between Alan and Doc, ground to a halt again,” Hefley said, while advising Democratic leaders to take Berman seriously. “I think he means it” that he would not return as the committee’s top Democrat in the next Congress, Hefley added.

Mollohan declined to comment on any plans to resume his seniority on the committee or on the panel’s current makeup.

Berman has amassed a liberal voting record, earning a 90 percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union for 2003-2004. Yet he has won past praise from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups for his support of liberalized immigration clearance for agricultural workers.

And Holman noted that Berman’s bipartisan approach to ethics helps take some of the sting out of his party’s “culture of corruption” mantra.

“There is a neutralizing effect by the fact that Berman’s participating with Hastings,” Holman said. “Now Democrats can be pointed to as cooperating. This isn’t something I would view the Democratic leadership as seeing as constructive for their 2006 election plans.”

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters yesterday that the fate of the lobbying and ethics bill the chamber cleared in May remains up in the air amid talks with the Senate. The House has yet to tap its negotiators for the bill, despite a leadership-imposed deadline of the July 4 recess to produce a conference report.

“Anything’s possible,” Boehner said when asked whether that timeline is still achievable. Once House GOP leaders name conferees, if they decide to do so, Democrats would have to wait 20 calendar days and 10 legislative days before filing motions to instruct, which can become politically difficult for the majority.