Pelosi, other Dem leaders pressure members to oppose ethics measure

House Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), have ratcheted up the pressure on their rank-and-file members to oppose a resolution calling for an ethics committee investigation into the ties between key Democrats and a controversial defense-lobbying firm.

Democratic leaders have told their members they should let the ethics panel do its work and stop supporting a measure sponsored by Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.) that calls for an ethics probe into political donations from the now-defunct PMA Group lobbying firm and earmarks its clients received.
ADVERTISEMENT

With Congress back in session, Democratic leaders plan to lean on their members again this week or next.

The pressure appears to be working. Reps. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindCongressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny Alcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline MORE (D-Wis.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.), two of more than two dozen Democrats who supported Flake’s measure in the latest vote, on April 1, are now wavering.

“I’ll see what the resolution looks like when it comes up the next time,” Kind said when asked if he plans to continue to support the resolution.

Walz spokeswoman Amanda Frie said her boss is debating whether to support the resolution again in the wake of an announcement last week by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a new ethics review board, that it had opened 10 cases. The OCE disclosed only the number of open cases, not their subject matter.

“He’s waiting to see how those turn out,” Frie explained.

Even though Kind is reconsidering his support for the Flake measure, he remains deeply concerned about the corruptive influence of earmarks and worries that the party is “on a collision course” on the issue if more reforms are not implemented. He said the issue is so “fraught with landmines” that he has personally expressed his views on earmark reforms to President Obama and other White House staff.

“Right now there needs to be some follow-up from the administration” on Obama’s earmark reform pledges, Kind said. “For the sake of the institution, more thinking needs to be done on further earmark reform.”

Other rank-and-file Democrats who supported the Flake resolution, including several vulnerable freshmen, did not respond to calls for comment.

Flake could respond to the most recent criticism by further narrowing the resolution but will determine what to do after discussing the matter with colleagues, according to a House aide. His original measure was broader, calling on the ethics panel to investigate ties between political contributions and earmarks.

Kind, a former prosecutor, has voted with Flake against tabling the measure all seven times the Arizona Republican has offered it. Kind and Walz were part of a growing group of centrist or reform-minded Democrats who have voted against leadership’s efforts to kill the resolution when it has come up on the House floor. The measure garnered support from 17 Democrats the first time it was offered, but Democratic defections increased to 27 during the latest vote.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a former member of the ethics committee who now heads the Foreign Affairs Committee, lectured the rank and file against voting for the Flake resolution at a closed-door whip/caucus meeting earlier this month. Kind called the Berman remarks and the unhappy response from himself and several other rank-and-file Democrats “a major discussion.”

“It wasn’t the most pleasant conversation, I will admit that,” Kind recalled.

It is unclear if Pelosi was in the room during Berman’s speech.

Roughly 50 Democrats attended the Thursday meeting, so Berman and Democratic leaders may feel the need to address the matter in a larger forum this week or next, according to a senior Democratic aide. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) head Sheila Bair will attend the Tuesday evening caucus meeting, meaning any debate over earmarks and the Flake resolution would most likely take place later this week or next.

“If others have questions and others feel like the full caucus needs to have a discussion about this, I don’t think that Chairman Berman would shy away from this,” the staffer said.

In the private Democratic meeting, Berman told colleagues that if he is serious about wanting a probe, Flake should file a formal complaint that would automatically trigger an ethics investigation. The California Democrat also said Flake’s resolution is too broad and could impose too low a threshold for investigating members’ fundraising activities, arguing that the ethics process is secret for a reason, so there’s no way to know if the panel has begun to review the PMA matter, according to Kind and other Democratic sources in the room.

“There was a misunderstanding, with the silence among a lot of new members who believed that nothing was being done, that no review was taking place,” Kind said.

Berman also stressed the series of earmark and ethics reforms Democrats have implemented since winning the majority. Most recently, Democrats have required lawmakers to post their earmark requests on their websites, a transparency deadline first imposed just over a week ago.

“We’ve put strong accountability and transparency measures in place, the latest announcement from the president came in January of this year and just a month ago, we announced that we’re cutting earmarks again,” said a senior Democratic aide who attended the meeting. “There are mechanisms in place for the bipartisan ethics committee to move forward. We have a working ethics process — something that they did not have when Republicans were in control.”

In his remarks, Berman did not address his party’s propensity for offering privileged resolutions against Republicans just a few years ago.

While still in the minority, Pelosi offered a series of privileged resolutions calling attention to Republican ethics issues, including one that would have created a bipartisan task force “to return to ethical rules of the House.” At the time of that measure, the ethics committee was not operating because of several partisan disputes. All of the resolutions were tabled on mainly party lines.

Flake spokesman Matt Specht declined to comment.

During the meeting, Kind said he defended Flake as an even-handed anti-earmark critic who would offer a resolution implicating Republicans if he felt it was warranted.

“I told people that I’ve gotten to know Jeff Flake throughout the years and Jeff is not a vindictive person — he’s an equal-opportunity critic,” Kind said.

The week before the recess, Kind told The Hill that a cloud will be hanging over all House Democrats until their leaders address the PMA controversy. The quote was repeated in a New York Times editorial calling for an ethics committee investigation into the PMA controversy.

Pelosi is in a particularly difficult position. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally, has close ties to PMA and its clients, as do Reps. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report DC theatre to host 11-hour reading of the Mueller report MORE (D-Va.).

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said, “Since taking control of Congress in January 2007, Democrats reformed an earmark process that had grown out of control. The new rules in place are helping to drastically reduce earmarks and ensure accountability for congressional earmarks at every step of the process.”

Berman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.