House ethics committee solicits input in rare hearing

Often criticized as secretive and stalemated, the House ethics committee took a leap into transparency yesterday with a landmark open hearing that asked frequent sponsors of private congressional trips — and one government watchdog — how the chamber should change its travel standards.

Though a conference on lobbying and ethics legislation has yet to begin, and may be stalled amid uncertainty over naming House conferees, the arrival of a new top Democrat has jump-started the committee’s progress toward reform.

Chairman Doc HastingsDoc HastingsBoehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform GOP accuses feds of bad science in endangered species studies MORE (R-Wash.) said he and the new ranking Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), would treat the House lobbying bill’s June 15 deadline for issuing new travel rules as a mandate, despite its nonbinding nature.

“The members of this committee are united in our bipartisan determination to put in place mechanisms to ensure that abuses of congressional travel are detected immediately — and then dealt with firmly, fairly and without regard to friendship, favor or political party,” Hastings said yesterday, singling out Berman for his cooperation.

The newfound good feeling on the panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, began to take root in April after Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) stepped down from the ranking member’s post to battle allegations of improper earmarking and real-estate deals. In recent weeks, the ethics committee has tapped members to investigate two sitting lawmakers and issued a framework for voluntary pre-approval of private lawmaker travel.

The testifying trip sponsors largely hailed the committee’s effort to establish a required travel-screening process swiftly.

“We’re talking about a much more active role for this committee, and I welcome that,” said the Rev. Douglas Tanner Jr., president of the nonprofit Faith & Politics Institute.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) noted that a more active role for the ethics committee “could have saved people a lot of problems” as the illegal activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and their cohorts came to light in a still-unfolding federal corruption probe.

None of the trip sponsors endorsed an outright ban on privately funded travel, as originally floated by House GOP leadership and included in the chamber’s lobbying bill. Bradley Gordon, top lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), praised the panel’s voluntary pre-approval rules, released last month, and said they should be made into requirements.

Trip sponsors largely agreed that the ethics committee should give its blessing in advance to any private trips, but the extent of information sponsors would need to provide and the involvement of lobbyists in travel were key disputes. Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said the knowledge that lobbyists can bring to public and private trips is often useful to members, but Common Cause President Chellie Pingree called for sponsors to certify in advance that lobbyists would not participate or fund private trips.

Berman pointed out that some members — including Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the former majority leader who is leaving Congress this week — have used ethics committee pre-approval as a defense when criticized for accepting private trips. Some of those members claiming pre-approval, Berman said, did not truly receive it.

“I don’t think the ethics committee or the government should get into micromanaging,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), parrying Pingree’s call for a detailed trip itinerary from trip sponsors. Franc, whose group sponsors a well-respected orientation program for new members, said more disclosure would serve as its own check on abuse of the process.

Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) questioned lawmakers’ freedom to take spouses with them on private trips, as well as how strong the penalties should be for flouting travel rules.

“Government-paid travel to Iraq never includes a spouse, but when it’s to Spain, gee, it does,” said Hart, who is single. She suggested tagging members who willfully misreport trips with personal fines, similar to those levied for misreporting on annual financial disclosure forms, which Tanner readily endorsed.

Franc urged a different standard for staffers than lawmakers. The former, he observed, can be fired, while the latter should not face expulsion for travel slipups unless they involve a felony.

Enforcement was as much on lawmakers’ and sponsors’ lips as transparency, with Rep. Gene GreenGene GreenGOP surprises with push for smaller ObamaCare changes House, Senate roll out chemical safety compromise Time runs short on House GOP bill tackling mental health, mass shootings MORE (D-Texas), among the chamber’s most frequent fliers, calling it essential to the committee’s job “to protect the image of the House.”

AIPAC often sends members and staffers to Israel, while the Faith & Politics Institute is known for its biennial Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimages to Alabama, led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and GOP members. Illustrating the ubiquity of lobbyist involvement in travel, Tanner said about 15 of the 200 attendees at the last pilgrimage were registered lobbyists.

John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), submitted sample itineraries from his group’s traditional staffer tours of manufacturing plants. Engler said the lobbying bill has had a chilling effect on travel before even becoming law, noting that NAM was forced to cancel this year’s slate of plant tours because of low participation despite a tradition of obtaining pre-approval by the ethics committee.

Engler attributed the cancellations to “travel bans by personal congressional offices, an apparent leadership moratorium and staff reluctance to be seen traveling anywhere.”