Rank-and-file House Republicans on Wednesday launched a push to require every member of their leadership but Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to face elections for their posts Feb. 2, saying the step was necessary to convince the public that the party was serious about ethics and lobbying reform.
Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) planned to start circulating a petition as early as Wednesday night asking for broad elections. The move underscored many House Republicans’ belief that their leaders needed to do more to respond to the unfolding corruption scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, if the party was going to keep its congressional majority in the November elections.
Only days ago, House Republicans appeared set to hold a single election to replace Tom DeLay, who had resigned as majority leader, the No. 2 leadership position in the House. DeLay has been indicted in Texas on campaign finance-related charges unrelated to the Abramoff case.
But under Sweeney’s petition, House Republicans would hold elections for five leadership posts in addition to picking a successor to DeLay as majority leader.
“Most of this year, I have felt like our leadership needed new people at the table,” said Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), a conservative who normally is supportive of the leadership. “The fact is that they are tired.”
She added: “I have not seen evidence of our leadership being able to stand up to special interests. I think it is important that every person in leadership is on the spot and has to convey to us why they should continue in leadership.”
Republican concerns about the fallout from the lobbying scandal also echoed through the race to replace DeLay.
So far it has been a two-way competition between DeLay’s hand-picked successor, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) was said by lawmakers to be close to announcing that he would also run for majority leader, urged on by members who feared that Blunt and Boehner were too closely tied to DeLay.
“I’ve talked to Shadegg a number of times,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “We’d all benefit if he runs.... I think he is leaning in that direction.”
DeLay stepped down from the majority leader post in September after a Texas grand jury indicted him on money-laundering charges. He had hoped to clear up the Texas charges and regain his leadership job, but that ambition was dashed when Abramoff pleaded guilty this month to attempting to bribe and corrupt members of Congress. Three former senior DeLay staffers were implicated in the federal case.
Rank-and-file House Republicans circulated a petition demanding that a permanent successor to DeLay be elected, a move that forced DeLay’s decision last weekend not to try to reclaim his leadership position.
Encouraged by their success, a coalition of conservative and moderate Republican lawmakers was “emboldened to talk about things that have been bothering them for a long time” and to push for broader and deeper ethics reforms, said one Republican lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
Hastert (R-Ill.) has scrambled to respond. He has announced he will push for new ethics rules and restrictions on lobbyists when Congress returns Jan. 31 from its winter recess.
Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s press secretary, declined to respond Wednesday to the move to seek broad leadership elections.
For the time being, lawmakers and political analysts said, Hastert’s position as speaker is thought to be secure, although he too had ties to Abramoff. Hastert sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in June 2003, asking that she block a casino that Abramoff’s tribal clients thought would threaten their own casino profits.
Just days before Hastert wrote to Norton, tribes represented by Abramoff contributed more than $20,000 to Hastert’s political action committee.
“My instinct is that he’s safe, but what you’re starting to pick up is a new dynamic that’s surfaced ... for the first time,” said Mike Franc, director of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “There is a growing desire on the part of the rank-and-file membership to have a fresh beginning -- a sense that you have to do something that is a clean break from the previous practices.”
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), charged by Hastert with putting together a lobbying rules reform package, said one measure under consideration would put restrictions on the so-called revolving door of lawmakers and their staffers leaving Congress to take lobbying positions and then returning to lobby Congress.
Another measure under consideration would end the widespread practice of allowing private groups to fund congressional trips. Political MoneyLine, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics, says that private organizations have spent about $20 million in the last five years on trips for members of Congress.
Hastert and other members have in the past defended the practice, saying it saves taxpayers money and helps educate lawmakers about important issues. But trips are being scrutinized by federal investigators as one way that lobbyists and other groups seek to unduly influence members of Congress. One trip that has received media attention is DeLay’s sojourn with Abramoff to a luxury golf resort in Scotland in 2000.
Some members said that simply banning such trips did not address the root cause of the GOP’s problem as the party prepares to face voters in November: a leadership that, in their view, has allowed ethics problems to go unanswered for too long.
Northup, the Kentucky lawmaker, said she called for all members of the leadership except Hastert to stand for election during a conference call Hastert held with Republican lawmakers Monday.
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) said he had worked out the language of the election petition with Sweeney, and would help him seek the 50 signatures it takes to call a meeting of House Republicans to vote on holding broad elections.
“This is really coming to a head because of the Abramoff stuff,” Lungren said. “I’m not suggesting there is a single member of the current leadership or a single staffer of the current leadership who has involvement with him, but we need to do our due diligence.”
Lungren said Republicans could not afford to elect another majority leader who might, in a few weeks, face accusations that he was closely tied to Abramoff.
Even if 50 members sign the petition, Lungren acknowledged, it is far from a forgone conclusion that a majority of Republican House members would agree to broaden the elections beyond replacing DeLay.
“Obviously, there are those who would not like to see this go forward,” Lungren said. “They would like to presume that we don’t need to do this ... but we need to show voters that we confront this issue.”