Calling for a “cooling-off period” in the wake of the investigation of Speaker Newt Gingrich, House leaders Wednesday imposed a two-month moratorium on the filing of new ethics complaints and promised a thorough review of the process for handling future cases.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) announced formation of a bipartisan task force to review the way the House polices itself and to recommend changes. In the meantime, he said, the House Ethics Committee will not receive, initiate or review any ethics complaints between now and April 11.
“After the past few tumultuous months, I think we must have a brief cooling-off period where members can sit back and examine where the ethics process works, where it doesn’t and how it might be improved,” Armey said.
The moratorium is the latest in a series of moves around Capitol Hill intended to pull the plug on the high-voltage partisanship that has suffused Congress since Republicans took control in 1995.
On Tuesday, Clinton and congressional leaders agreed to a short list of five issues of common concern where they hoped to push for early action. Early next month, Republican and Democratic House members are planning a weekend retreat in Hershey, Pa., to help lawmakers get beyond partisan divisions and to restore “civility” to their dealings with each other.
One effect of the moratorium will be to postpone a committee decision on how to handle charges against Gingrich that were still unresolved at the end of the last Congress. The case brought before the House in January centered on allegations that the Georgia Republican improperly used tax-exempt funds for political purposes and had misled the committee in the course of its investigation. However, the panel also received separate complaints alleging that Gingrich had received improper gifts and contributions from GOPAC, a political action committee that he once headed.
The committee in late September said that it would pursue the allegations, including the charge that he accepted $250,000 from GOPAC for personal use, but the panel did not act on the matter by the end of the last Congress. Technically the complaint lapsed with the new Congress and has to be refiled or re-initiated by the committee. That cannot happen until after April 11 now.
Even House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who instigated many of the complaints filed against Gingrich, thinks that a cooling-off period is a good idea. “It will help set a tone in Congress that will move us past that bitter debate,” he said.
The move to reappraise the ethics process comes in the wake of the House’s vote last month to reprimand Gingrich and make him pay $300,000 because of his ethical lapses. The two-year Ethics Committee investigation was a wrenching process that strained relations between the parties and, some said, left the ethics process a shambles.
Armey and Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) on Wednesday each named six members to serve on the ethics task force. Among the questions they will consider, Armey said, are who can file a complaint, when investigations should be initiated and how long they should last.