ThinkFast: Ethics Reformers Unveil Major House Legislation

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"ThinkFast: Ethics Reformers Unveil Major House Legislation"

A host of ethical scandals now plague Congress. Yesterday, four lawmakers came forward to unveil a proposal to bring integrity back to the halls of Congress.

Rep. David Obey, the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, joined with colleagues Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), Rep. David Price (D-NC), and Rep. Tom Allen (D-ME) to propose “rules changes that would make it more difficult for lawmakers to sneak provisions into legislation on behalf of special interests.” They appeared together at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress to detail their reform legislation.

Afterwards, Congressmen Obey, Allen, and Price sat down with Think Progress to answer some of our questions about the ethical problems pervading Congress, from the leadership on down.

Watch a video of the event here, or download a podcast of our interview here.

Some highlights from the interview:

Rep. Allen on the lesson the Jack Abramoff scandal has taught Congress:

If you preach selfishness, it’s a short step to acting that way for your own interests. I think that Abramoff is an exception to the general rule of lobbyists, but I certainly have felt in my nine years in the House that there is way too much deference to the rich and powerful in this country.

Rep. Obey on the alleged ‘truce’ between House Republicans and Democrats not to file ethics complaints:

People were looking for ways to restore some civility [following the ethics scandals of the early 1990s], so maybe that was in their heads when they were reluctant to needlessly politicize ethics issues, but I think recent developments have demonstrated that we need much more aggressive action.

Rep. Price on why the conservative House leadership has encountered recent difficulties passing key legislation:

Roy Blunt’s got his hands full. I mean, this is an agenda – a terrible way to try to start out a leadership career “” cutting food stamps, and Medicaid, and student loans, and child support, while you’re at the same time giving tax breaks for dividends and capital gains. Goodness, that’s a nightmare for any leader. And the notion that Tom DeLay could pull this off, I’m not sure is correct.

UPDATE: Michael Crowley at The Plank and Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly share their thoughts on the reform proposal.

Full interview below:

THINK PROGRESS: Hi, I’m Faiz Shakir with Think Progress and we have five questions for Congressman Obey, Congressman Allen, and Congressman Price. The first question is: Do you hear conservative members now privately echoing your concerns about a Congress that’s too beholden to special interests and mired in ethical problems?

OBEY: I think individual Republicans are very much concerned about the abuse of leadership power by their leadership. I think they don’t know quite how to get out the box because they’re intimidated, but I think that they’re”¦a number of them are very very worried about.

PRICE: One thing that’s helped heighten their worry is the decline of President Bush’s popularity and the pushing by the Republican leadership of some very unpalatable things. Like you supposedly pay for Katrina by cutting food stamps, or Medicaid – cutting things that the very victims of Katrina depend on. A lot of Republicans – so-called moderates who have let their arms be twisted on past votes and have let themselves be brought in line – they’re resisting a bit now. It’s a little different. And so, we think some of these proposals for reform might find a little more receptivity on their part.

ALLEN: I detect a lot of anxiety among Republicans in the House and it comes in part from the fact that they’re being forced to do the things that they believe are very unpopular back home. So this issue of the power of their leadership over them is causing them concern.

THINK PROGRESS: In terms of how lobbyists interact with members of Congress, is Jack Abramoff the rule rather than the exception? Are there more Jack Abramoffs out there?

OBEY: I think Jack Abramoff is an example. I mean, I think he’s an outrageous example of the system gone run-amok. I think he’s going to be setting new examples of outrageousness. But the problem is you have a culture of “anything goes,” which has been pedaled by the Republican House leadership, an attitude that rules are something to be gotten around, and I think Abramoff is an example of what results when you have that kind of thinking.

ALLEN: If you preach selfishness, it’s a short step to acting that way for your own interests. I think that Abramoff is an exception to the general rule of lobbyists, but I certainly have felt in my nine years in the House that there is way too much deference to the rich and powerful in this country.

THINK PROGRESS: Today the Washington Post reports that the House ethics committee has been missing in action despite the fact that numerous members of Congress are under federal investigation. What’s really holding up the ethics panel’s work?

OBEY: Well, the ethics panel was put out of business by the Republican leadership on purpose. They wanted to disarm the committee, they didn’t want the committee to proceed, so they eliminated the chairman who tried to do his job, and they eliminated several reform-minded members and put in their own list of compliant members in their stead. Now I think the public heat has made them wish they hadn’t done that, and they’re getting off to a belated start, but I’m still dubious we’re going to get much out of them.

ALLEN: Norm Orenstein had a suggestion during our conversation earlier, and he basically said there ought to be an outside group which could take complaints and evaluate complaints and do an investigation of alleged violations of the ethics rules and then kick that over to Congress to deal with it, rather than putting all the burden on this so-called bipartisan evenly-divided group of members. There needs to be outside pressure in order to make this system work more effectively.

PRICE: It certainly isn’t a matter of the two parties being equally culpable here. The Democrats have pushed every step of the way for being a process that is truly bipartisan with an equal division of members in authority on that ethics committee and Republicans have resisted every step of the way. It’s a good thing that the press is finally paying some attention to this and I hope the result will be, if nothing else, to shame them into doing their job.

THINK PROGRESS: For years, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have had a truce not to file ethics charges against one another. In retrospect, was this a bad idea?

OBEY: I don’t know that they had a truce. I think that you had some serious scandals several years earlier, especially with Speaker Gingrich, and I think that sort of shocked people. People were looking for ways to restore some civility, so maybe that was in their heads when they were reluctant to needlessly politicize ethics issues, but I think recent developments have demonstrated that we need much more aggressive action.

THINK PROGRESS: Our last question – why isn’t Roy Blunt as effective a leader as Tom DeLay?

OBEY: Well, there was a reason Tom DeLay was referred to as “The Hammer” because Tom didn’t just lead by persuasion, he led by intimidation, he led by muscle. I mean, this is a man who would bring in outside lobby groups in and trade associations and tell them that if they wanted attention and access, they had better hire Republicans in their operation. He created a marriage between K Street lobbying operations and the Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue and that made him very formidable even as it gutted what democracy was supposed to be able to produce.

ALLEN: I would say it’s too early to say how effective Roy Blunt is, but clearly, the ruthlessness of a Tom DeLay has had a huge impact on the way the House has been run. Of course, right now, Roy Blunt’s going to deal with the fact that opinions of this Republican Congress are in the tank, and there are Republicans who, just as I said before, are really anxious, they’re afraid they’re going to lose their own elections – so it’s a hard group to manage. This is all the result of an underlying philosophy that we’re not going to deal with Democrats, we’re only going to rely on Republicans, and we’re going to force cohesion when it doesn’t even exist in many cases.

PRICE: Roy Blunt’s got his hands full. I mean, this is an agenda – a terrible way to try to start out a leadership career, cutting food stamps, and Medicaid, and student loans, and child support, while you’re at the same time giving tax breaks for dividends and capital gains – goodness, that’s a nightmare, for any leader. And the notion that Tom DeLay could pull this off, I’m not sure is correct. But, anyway, it’s Roy Blunt’s bad luck to be coming in just as President Bush’s popularity goes south, and conservatives are trying this power play to do all these draconian cuts to the most vulnerable people in society and Roy Blunt’s being asked to deliver on this. He’s guilty of, if nothing else, of bad timing, of trying to pull this off. But the notion that DeLay could come in here and do it – I’m not sure even DeLay could manage this.

THINK PROGRESS: Congressman Obey, Congressman Allen, Congressman Price, thank you for joining us for this edition of Think Fast.

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