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Mr. Thomas Has the Floor?

Last Thursday morning, just a few hours before the House approved a key procedural move on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, ex-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) strolled onto the chamber floor to chat with his former colleagues.

By his own account, Thomas was on Capitol Hill on other business and just happened to go to the floor to talk with some friends. While he was there, the former Ways and Means Committee chairman did discuss the Colombia bill with some lawmakers. But while House rules forbid former members who are registered lobbyists from visiting the floor, Thomas was fine because he's not a registered lobbyist and wasn't lobbying anyone while he was there.

"I wasn't there for business purposes," Thomas told Capitol Briefing. "I was there for institutional curiosity purposes."

So that's all there is to it, right? Maybe not.

In February 2006, the House passed a rule putting some restrictions on floor (and House gym) access for former members, specifically adding that members who were registered lobbyists would be banned from the floor. But the entire rule on former members, as it's now written, actually isn't so simple (go to Clause 4 of Rule IV to see for yourself). It says a former member may not go on the floor if he or she is a registered lobbyist OR "is in the employ of or represents any party or organization for the purpose of influencing, directly or indirectly, the passage, defeat, or amendment of any legislative proposal."

Now, Thomas is not a registered lobbyist, but he is a "senior advisor" in the federal government relations section of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a lobbying firm that most certainly does try to "influence" all kinds of legislation. Come to think of it, doesn't almost everyone in Washington -- including the media -- try to "directly or indirectly" influence legislation? What does the rule actually mean?

"It's not clear," said Stan Brand, a lawyer who specializes in congressional ethics issues. "I don't know why they wrote it that way."

C. Simon Davidson, an ethics lawyer with McGuireWoods, agreed

"I would say the language is less than lucid," Davidson said, though he added that his reading "is that they are not intending to capture all employees of all lobbying firms," because if that was the rule's intent it would have said so explicitly (as does the House gift rule, which bans lawmakers from taking gifts from any employee of a firm that has lobbyists).

Just to throw in another variable, is Thomas really "in the employ" of Buchanan Ingersoll?

"I'm not 'employed' by them," Thomas said, explaining that he works part-time on a non-salaried basis. "I'm an independent contractor with them, which would make it even more complicated. I did that so I could purposely say that I am not a lobbyist and am not employed by them."

Even if Thomas was violating the rule, it's not as though the Capitol Police could arrest him and throw him in the House dungeon. "It's sort of an odd rule because it doesn't provide for any specific sanction, and once you leave the House the House doesn't have any authority to do anything to you," Davidson said.

To sum up: Thomas works for a lobbying firm, but he's not actually a lobbyist or an "employee" of the firm. House rules might or might not prevent him from visiting the floor, and there's no way to really punish such a violation anyway.

Maybe the safest course of action for a former member is to just avoid the floor altogether. Thomas said that's what he usually does, anyway. "I believe in being in the arena, and when you're not in the arena don't hang around the arena," he said.

Fortunately, House rules don't say anything about an "arena." Or do they?

By Ben Pershing  |  April 15, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , House  
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