House Ethics Committee Tackles Staffing

For over a year, the House Ethics committee has been mired in one dispute after another. Now for the first time in the 109th Congress, it appears that the ethics committee is poised to resume its activities. On Wednesday, chairman Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), met to discuss personnel issues.

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The House of Representatives is trying to prove that it can police itself. The Abramhoff lobbying and ethics scandals led to any number of election year proposals for reform including calls for an outside commission to oversee compliance with congressional rules. Now the House is gearing up to address the work of its own ethics watchdogs. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

For over a year now the House ethics committee has been mired in one dispute after another. First came the firing of the panel's chairman, Republican Joel Hefley of Colorado by House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Hastert and other GOP leaders were angry that under Hefley, the committee issued a public admonishment of the conduct of then majority leader Tom DeLay. Republicans then unilaterally pushed through some rules changes but backtracked under pressure. Then, squabbling erupted over staffing the committee. The result, says House Democratic Whips Steny Hoyer of Maryland:

Representative STENY HOYER (Democratic Whip, Maryland): The uh, Ethics Committee has been missing in action at a time when, clearly, we are having very substantial ethical improprieties being perpetrated by members.

NAYLOR: Former committee chairman Hefley says it was not always so dysfunctional.

Representative JOEL HEFLEY (Republican, Colorado): It did function quite well until a year ago when the Republican leadership screwed it up.

NAYLOR: Now for the first time in the 109th Congress, it appears that the ethics committee is poised to resume its activities. Just yesterday afternoon chairman Doc Hastings of Washington and the ranking Democrat on the panel, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, met to discuss personnel issues. They're preparing to hire non-partisan staff investigators. Mollohan has been criticized by Republicans for blocking what he says were GOP efforts to politicize the committee by hiring Republican staff members. Now he feels vindicated.

Representative ALAN MOLLOHAN (Democrat, West Virginia): We have confronted the immediate challenge before the committee. We could not have gone forward last year with rules imposed in a partisan way. We couldn't have. There would have been no reason for the ethics committee to function at all because its credibility right from the get-go would have been in question.

NAYLOR: There's no shortage of cases for the committee to investigate. Likely to be at the top of the agenda is Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney. His attendance on a Jack Abramhoff sponsored golfing trip to Scotland has already forced Ney to relinquish his chairmanship of a House committee. Former majority leader DeLay's ties to Abramhoff makes him a probable candidate for further scrutiny.

The committee also has a pending investigation into Democrat James McDermott who allegedly leaked a taped cell phone call involving now majority leader John Boehner nine years ago. Ethics committee chairman Hasting's office did not return numerous phone calls. Former chairman Hefley says Congress shouldn't get carried away in its zeal to reform its rules.

Mr. HEFLEY: Yes, there can be some changes but we shouldn't run off half-cocked just to create the impression to the American public that, uh, we're really cleaning things up when maybe that's not the case.

NAYLOR: And Democrat Mollohan agrees that some of the reform proposals are unnecessary, especially the calls for an outside commission to be put in charge of investigating lawmaker's conduct. He says existing rules can be tweaked, but insists they and a reformed ethics committee are adequate for the job. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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