New House Rules Panel Chair Promises Change
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
The Democrats say they'll raise ethical standards. Their first order of business Thursday and Friday will be to pass a package of new rules and ethics guidelines they say will be a big step in the right direction.
New York's Democrat Louise Slaughter will take over the chairmanship of the House Rules Committee. And she told me some of the first things to change will be earmarks, some of them outages pork barrel projects like Alaska's bridge to nowhere and the $50 million dollar indoor rain forest in Iowa.
Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): None of those will be funded until they're all gone over. The fact is the Republicans passed no budget this year. Only two bills were signed - Homeland Security and Defense - so only the projects in Homeland Security and Defense are going to be funded. All the others are on hold till further notice.
SEABROOK: How will your new rules change the earmarks process?
Rep. SLAUGHTER: You have to put your name on that earmark. You have to identify who wants it. And I'm still trying to change this a little bit, because right now you have to certify that it benefits neither you nor your spouse. I don't think that's good enough. I think it has to be certified that it won't benefit anybody you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. SLAUGHTER: You know, not your cousin, your daughter, the whole thing.
SEABROOK: What beyond earmarks will you pass this week?
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Lobbying reform. We are going to make sure that nobody's riding around in corporate jets. We don't have lunches or dinners or breakfast with lobbies that they pay for. We could pay for our own food. I don't want anything from a lobbyist but information, if I need it. But the astonishing thing is, we've gone about 9500 lobbyists for 535, if you count the Senate - that's when Bill Clinton left - to over 34,000 now. It's appalling.
SEABROOK: Congresswoman Slaughter, in a lot of cases, what you all have called the culture of corruption has come from not so much breaking the rules, or rules not being there, but bending rules. Like in the legislative process, holding open the vote, only allowing certain amendments.
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Yeah. Oh, they avoid it altogether.
SEABROOK: How do you keep that from happening? What's the enforcement side of this?
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Nancy Pelosi and me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. SLAUGHTER: We're going to abide by the rules and the way it's written. You know...
SEABROOK: What happens when they break the rules?
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Well, there has to be consequences in the first place. We won't do it. If we say we're not going to hold a bill open for three hours, we won't do it.
SEABROOK: What about teeth on earmarks and lobbying reform?
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Well, that's easy. In lobby reform, I think we have to have somebody to really make sure that that happens and we have to have constant reporting. And it has to be transparent. I believe an inspector general or somebody with that kind of stature, who simply will make sure that the ethics are complied with, is a very important point.
SEABROOK: Is that part of your ethics package, that there will be an inspector general?
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Mm-hmm. Yes, it is. Now, one thing we don't have, it's on the Ethics Committee itself, which has let us down - we probably should bring in a group of retired federal judges or former members under - above reproach, whatever we need to do. That's not likely to happen in the first hundred hours, that's not part of what we're going to do. But I think that we are all interested in looking at some outside group.
SEABROOK: When will you do it? Do you have confidence that...
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Well, it will be, it will be very shortly. As you know, we're going to be working five days a week. But I think that it will probably be part of - very short. Well, because everybody's disgusted and everybody wants to do something about it.
SEABROOK: Mrs. Slaughter, why does this matter? Explain to the listeners out there who don't follow Washington very much, think that...
Rep. SLAUGHTER: Why does it matter?
SEABROOK: ...think that the one member of Congress is as corrupt as the next one.
Rep. SLAUGHTER: It matters because there are only 435 of us. And we are chosen by our neighbors to go to Washington and represent them. That in itself is the burden for ethics, that we need to do that fairly and justly. Second, we are the luckiest people on Earth to be able to be writing legislation that affects not only all of Americans, but in many cases the whole world.
I remember a man named Jim Howard from New Jersey, who was the Transportation Chair, wrote the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. And I'd said to him once, you know, people don't know you're name. But they have to be grateful to you every time they take a breath or get a drink of water. This is an honor and a privilege that so few people get. I can't imagine anybody in the world that would play fast and loose with it or mess it up.
SEABROOK: Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat. She'll soon be chair of the House Rules Committee. Thank you very much.
Rep. SLAUGHTER: It's a pleasure, Andrea. It's always nice to talk to you.