What's Next for House Ethics Panel?
The tragic death Wednesday of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) leaves the House ethics committee -- which currently has relatively little work on its plate -- temporarily without a chairman as the chamber prepares to return to session for the last few weeks of the 110th Congress.
Under House rules, the decision on who should replace Tubbs Jones as head of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) alone. Pelosi's office said Thursday that she has not begun to consider whom she might appoint to the position, and would not say what the timeframe would be for making her decision.
Pelosi could choose to elevate a current member of the committe to chairman and appoint a new member to fill the vacant seat on the panel; Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) is next on the seniority roster, though seniority doesn't have to matter in Pelosi's selection.
The Speaker could also choose to bring a member from outside the committee in to serve as chair, as she did in 2006 when Rep. Allan Mollohan (W.Va.) vacated the ranking Democratic slot and Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), who had held the job once before, came back to it at Pelosi's request. Because of Berman's experience on the panel and close relationship with Pelosi, she could ask him to return one more time to finish out this year.
Regardless of who serves as chairman, the ethics panel appears to have already done most of its heavy lifting for this congress. The committee has issued several memos providing guidance on the new strictures imposed by the 2007 lobbying and ethics reform bill, including on the guidelines for members attending the upcoming national party conventions.
Several House members are currently under some form of ethical scrutiny, but the committee traditionally does not investigate lawmakers who are also being probed by the Justice Department. So panel investigations of Reps. William Jefferson (D-La.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), both of whom are under indictment and awaiting trial, have been suspended. A probe of Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) over his drunk-driving arrest has also been put on hold. A handful of other members are reportedly under federal investigation (you can read a roundup in this post) and will thus also avoid ethics committee scrutiny for now.
The one member that the ethics committee definitely has to investigate in the coming weeks is Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who took the unusual step of filing complaints asking the panel to investigate himself on two separate issues -- one concerning his use of four rent-controlled apartments in New York City, and the other related to his use of congressional letterhead to arrange meetings with potential donors to an educational center bearing his name.
All the ethics panel has said publicly about the Rangel issue is that it is in receipt of his filings and is "reviewing these matters pursuant to committee rules." Under House rules, the committee has to at least consider any complaint filed by a member. If the complaint appears at all substantive, the panel will announce publicly the formation of an investigative subcommittee to pursue the matter. The committee will likely take that step on Rangel in September.
Of course, a surprise controversy could well arise anytime between now and the end of the year that would require quick action by the ethics committee. Such was the case in September 2006, when Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned from the chamber after the revelation that he had sent inappropriate electronic messages to House pages, and that other members and staff had known of the allegations before. The ethics panel was immediately asked to investigate the case, and it produced a report in December of that year.
Even before Tubbs Jones' death, the committee was already in the midst of changes. The panel just named a new acting chief counsel/staff director, Kenyen Brown, at the beginning of August after the job's previous occupant, William O'Reilly, left for the private sector.
And a newly formed investigative body, the Office of Congressional Ethics, is just beginning to take shape. The OCE, which will review allegations submitted by outside groups and forward those with merit to the ethics committee, now has the eight-member board in place that will run the operation. But the OCE won't be able to refer any complaints to the committee this fall because it is barred from doing so within 60 days of the election.
Serving as ethics chairman is never easy, and Tubbs Jones' replacement will have to deal with the awkward and tragic circumstances of the transition. But for now, at least, it appears likely that -- barring a Foley-esque surprise -- the panel will finish out the 110th Congress without taking much more action.
August 22, 2008; 6:56 AM ET
Categories: Dem. Leaders , Ethics and Rules , House
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