Gingrich Case Highlights Problems With Ethics Process
OUTSIDE 'WISE PERSONS'
WASHINGTON — In the end, the House of Representatives ethics machinery worked as it is supposed to.
Today, barring a last-minute hitch, the House is expected to agree to the ethics committee's recommendation, approving a reprimand and an unprecedented $300,000 financial penalty for Speaker Newt Gingrich's admitted violations of House rules. (Ethics subcommittee report: www.house.gov/demcaucus/report.htm.)
But while last week's hearing on the proper sanction for Mr. Gingrich took place in a calm, professional atmosphere, the partisan free-for-all that led up to it has Republicans and Democrats alike calling for a review of the process.
"It's a mess," says Bill Frenzel, a former GOP congressman from Minnesota who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "No one has come up with a reasonable way for Congress to be the judge of its members - especially when Congress enjoys cannibalism so much. I have no idea what they're going to do."
Responding to concerns that partisan nastiness is out of control and threatens to damage the institution of the House itself, majority leader Dick Armey of Texas and minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri have discussed the possibility of forming a bipartisan task force to look into the matter. "It's become very clear over the past two years that the way the committee is set up, one person can destroy the bipartisanship you need to get anything done," says Michelle Davis, Mr. Armey's spokeswoman. "Members on both sides of the aisle have asked, isn't there anything we can do about this?"
Some observers of the ethics process suggest that a nonpartisan council of outside "wise persons" - such as former members of Congress, ethics experts, and attorneys - might review charges brought against members and determine if the ethics committee or the full House should take further action. Currently the committee determines if an investigation is warranted, and if so, appoints a subcommittee to serve as a sort of "grand jury." If the subcommittee finds that a violation occurred, it refers the matter to the remaining members of the full committee who conduct a "trial," determine guilt, and recommend a punishment to the House.
But Ralph Lotkin, who served as the committee's chief counsel from 1985 to 1990, says a wise-persons council is not the answer. "Most of the criticism that has arisen regarding the current debacle is not because of the process, but because of the failure to implement it or the way it was implemented," he says. "The problem is the people sitting around the table and the influence sought to be applied from outside the committee. The atmosphere is radically different than even three years ago."
Mr. Lotkin says the idea of a group of outsiders sitting in judgment on House members is really not that different from the present system, in which the committee often hires an outside special counsel to help in the investigation. "The only difference is in the number of people. It's not clearly a panacea," he says.
Many Congress-watchers say the committee's primary problem over the past two years was the inability of chairman Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut and former ranking Democrat James McDermott of Washington to work together in investigating the charges against the Speaker. Republicans blame Mr. McDermott for politicizing the investigation and breaking committee rules by publicly criticizing Mrs. Johnson and other members and leaking information to the press.
For their part, Democrats claim that Johnson tried to obstruct and cover up the investigation. They are upset that she "unilaterally" canceled an agreed-upon schedule of week-long hearings after committee Democrats publicly complained that would mean special counsel James Cole's final report would reach members two weeks after the House voted on the penalty.
Many in and out of Congress see new hope for the process in the new ethics committee chairman, Rep. Jim Hansen (R) of Utah. A committee veteran respected on both sides of the aisle, Mr. Hansen last week told The Hill newspaper that he intends to enforce committee procedures: "If anybody leaks anything, I want permission to bounce him off the committee." Lotkin says he greets Hansen's appointment "with standing applause."
An investigating subcommittee and special counsel Cole originally charged Gingrich with three violations, including two counts of failing to obtain legal advice as to whether his use of tax-exempt organizations in funding a college course that he taught violated the tax code. The subcommittee - two Republicans and two Democrats - also charged the Speaker with giving it misleading, incomplete, and unreliable information regarding the relationship of GOPAC, his political-action committee, to the course.
In a plea-bargain, Gingrich admitted to one combined count in a revised "statement of alleged violation," so a trial before the committee was not necessary and the process moved directly to the penalty stage. The committee approved the extraordinary sanction against the Speaker Friday night in a 7-to-1 vote after a hearing that lasted more than six hours. The penalty stops short of a censure, which would have cost Gingrich his Speaker's job.