House Ethics Tightrope: House Republicans tout reforms but plan ethics rollback
November 16, 2010
On the surface, presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, makes a convincing case that change is coming to Washington.
Boehner has invited reform-minded freshmen to join his majority transition team, and he has drawn up an impressive laundry list of pending House reforms: Earmarks are out; transparency is in; bills will be crafted in the open and publicly posted well before votes. As Boehner put it in a YouTube video touting the GOP’s plans, “Now more than ever, citizens want to participate in government and hold their leaders accountable.”
But behind closed doors, Boehner’s agenda clashes head-on with the populist rhetoric of many newly elected Republican House members. Even as they outline institutional reforms, GOP leaders are gearing up to kill the fledgling Office of Congressional Ethics, which helps police ethics complaints. They are handpicking top aides, many of them old K Street hands, to staff key committees and Capitol Hill offices. Some tea party activists grouse that lobbyists and insiders are trying to “co-opt” the GOP freshmen.
Boehner “has clearly got a big problem on his hands,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “He’s an establishment, country-club Republican trying to embrace the tea party folks without making any of the changes they require. It’s a delicate balance.”
Not that the House Republican reform agenda lacks substance. Like the GOP class of ’94, which freshened up the House rules after a similar sweep to power, the incoming Republican leadership has spelled out meaningful operational improvements. These include ending House earmarks; posting bills publicly for three days before votes; writing bills in committee, not behind closed doors; and bringing video cameras into the House Rules Committee.
“What we’re pledging to do is make the process more transparent, so people can see how bills are being written,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for the majority transition office. GOP leaders are “seeking out the freshmen for their input,” he added, “because they were sent here to change Washington and shake up the way things work.”
Some of these proposals, as first outlined in the Republicans’ “Pledge to America,” are “refreshing,” acknowledged Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But he is skeptical of the reform plans, Ornstein said at a recent briefing hosted by Common Cause, largely because party leaders have “made it very clear” that they plan to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics. “There is no pledge here to deal with ethics issues in a positive way, period,” he said.