A Brewing Battle Over House Committee Assignments
Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives are involved in an increasingly bitter skirmish over one of the most routine congressional acts -- approving committee assignments.
Yesterday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that senior Republicans had approved Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) to take a seat on the Appropriations Committee, one of the most sought-after assignments on Capitol Hill.
Calvert is expected to fill the vacancy created by Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who left the panel after the FBI raided his home as part of an investigation into his wife's business connections to lobbyists. This comes as Republicans are still smarting from losing more than a handful of seats last fall that are directly attributable to ethical or legal questions related to longtime incumbents.
But questions have also been raised about a provision Calvert pushed that would upgrade a highway near property he co-owns, leading to accusations he pushed the measure for his own benefit. Some media reports have indicated a local grand jury is examining one of the land purchases that Calvert's business group was involved in, specifically probing whether the previously public land was sold appropriately.
Boehner acknowledged that ethics came up when the senior Republicans, known as the steering committee, met behind closed doors to weigh the Appropriations decision. "Congressman Calvert answered every question asked of him by the steering committee. It was a candid and frank conversation, and the members of the committee were satisfied with his answers," Boehner said.
But Democrats have yet to indicate whether they'll allow the usually perfunctory voice vote to approve Calvert's ascension, according to two senior Democratic strategists. And the House Democrats' campaign arm used the Calvert appointment to attack Boehner's pledge at the start of the 110th Congress to take swift action against GOP caucus members involved in ethical investigations.
"Evidently, John Boehner's idea of restoring ethical standards to Congress is replacing one investigated Republican with another," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Isn't there a single member of the Republican conference not under investigation who would be better suited for the Appropriations seat than Ken Calvert?"
The dust-up over Calvert's spot on Appropriations comes just three months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to appoint embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) to the Homeland Security Committee. Jefferson was infamously caught on tape, according to the FBI, accepting $100,000 from a businesswoman seeking help for trade deals in Africa, and $90,000 was found in his freezer shortly afterward during an FBI raid of his home in the summer of 2005.
While Pelosi ushered Jefferson off the coveted Ways and Means Committee last year, Republicans objected to the new Jefferson appointment to the sensitive Homeland Security Committee and vowed to force a recorded vote on his committee assignment if Pelosi brought it to the floor.
That objection has left the Jefferson assignment in legislative limbo, with Democrats privately acknowledging a reluctance to cast votes for a colleague whom they view as having been caught in an obvious ethical transgression, if not much worse.
Republicans are privately angry at any comparison of Calvert to Jefferson, who has had a former top staffer plead guilty in the investigation and another businessman pleaded guilty to bribing the lawmaker in exchange for help with additional trade deals. They note that Calvert hasn't even retained a criminal lawyer and that the earmark in question for the highway was requested by some local officials.
But the Appropriations Committee has been at the center of most congressional scandals of the past three years, from imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff dubbing the panel a "favor factory" to imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) steering tens of millions of dollars in so-called earmarks to contractors who provided him with more than $2.4 million in bribes.
This recent history put every appointment to Appropriations under the ethics microscope. So, ultimately, Republicans and Democrats may have to actually cast votes to determine Calvert and Jefferson's committee futures.
May 10, 2007; 8:15 AM ET
Categories: Ethics and Rules , House
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