In an apparent violation of a longstanding House rule, former California congressman John H. Rousselot has spent much of last week on the House floor lobbying lawmakers on two controversial issues under active consideration on Capitol Hill.
Rousselot, a lobbyist for the Bank of America, acknowledged in an interview that he has discussed a comprehensive banking measure with key members of the House Banking Committee, on which he formerly served.
In three key floor votes Friday, Bank of America and other major banks won one and lost two. An amendment that would have limited banks' ability to open branches across state lines was defeated, to the banks' relief. But a related amendment was adopted, and a Bank of America-backed proposal to kill the bill altogether was rejected. The House will resume work on the legislation Monday.
Rousselot, a former eight-term Republican congressman from San Marino, also acknowledged that he had been on the floor gathering signatures on a letter for another client, the state of Nevada. The state is trying to block a federal nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
On Thursday, a House subcommittee approved an omnibus energy bill that includes a restriction on Nevada's ability to obstruct the waste dump project. Further action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected soon.
A House rule prohibits former members from going onto the floor to seek to influence any legislation "pending before the House, reported by any committee of the House or under consideration in any of its committees or subcommittees."
Charles W. Johnson, the House deputy parliamentarian, said Rousselot's activities, as described by a Times reporter, were in clear violation of the rule, which was adopted in 1902 and tightened in 1978.
Johnson said the rule forbids ex-member-lobbyists from appearing on the House floor even if legislation they are pushing or opposing is not being debated; they are barred as soon as their bill has a hearing or is moving through a committee.
Rousselot, however, interpreted the rule far more narrowly. "I'm not allowed (to lobby legislators) only when the bill is being voted and discussed on the House floor," said Rousselot, 64, who was defeated in 1982.
Asked if his privileges give him an advantage over other lobbyists, he responded, "Yeah."
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), commenting generally on the practice, said that in his 27 years in the House he could "only remember a couple of instances . . . where I have heard a former member do anything that might impinge on the rule."
Former members of Congress enjoy lifetime floor privileges, subject to the anti-lobbying rule. As lobbyists, they can discuss pending legislation with lawmakers in their Capitol Hill offices or in public areas.
Foley noted that the ban against lobbying on the floor was adopted because lawmakers are a captive audience when they go into the chamber to cast votes.
Although a number of House members speak almost reverently of the rule and say that it is infrequently abused, there is evidence that it is lightly enforced and that its scope is widely misunderstood.
For three days last week, Rousselot could be seen openly working the House floor by squeezing hands and bending the ears of lawmakers: One moment he was huddling in a back corner with a key member of the Banking Committee, the next he was pulling a document from his black folio case and handing it to Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego). On occasion, he sat in one of the brown leather chairs reserved for House members and chatted with his former colleagues.
On Wednesday, Rousselot was so active that he twice broke off his interview with a Times reporter in the private Speaker's Lobby just outside the House floor--also forbidden territory under the anti-lobbying rule--to buttonhole lawmakers about the banking bill.
At the end of the interview, Rousselot returned to the floor to seek out other lawmakers.
Ohio Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie, the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, confirmed that he had been approached on the floor by Rousselot for his assistance in derailing the banking legislation. The Ohioan said he shared Rousselot's position on the bill and was not disturbed by his efforts.
"Former members have been discussing bills (on the floor) ever since I've been here," said Wylie, who was first elected in 1967. "It used to be former members could be on the floor even during a debate they were interested in."
Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Stanford), who was also buttonholed, said he has often been lobbied by Rousselot in his office, but never before on the floor or in the Speaker's Lobby. He added: "We should not allow people on the House floor who represent a particular interest."
Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D-N.C.), chairman of the House banking subcommittee on domestic monetary policy, was observed chatting with Rousselot on the floor after the House had approved ground rules for debate on the banking bill.
Neal said he felt the brief chat involved "no heavy lobbying effort, if any."
Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a freshman member of the Banking Committee, said Rousselot should not be allowed access to the House floor again. "It's totally inappropriate," she said. "To have a former member who is clearly attempting to influence a high-profile and very controversial bill is an abuse of the floor privilege."
Fred J. Martin Jr., Bank of America's chief Washington lobbyist, denied that Rousselot had done any lobbying on the floor--despite Rousselot's acknowledgement--and said he had not broken any rules.
It is not likely that Rousselot will have his privileges yanked. Foley said any offender who came to his attention would be "reminded" of the rule.