TOPICS > Politics

Some Perspective in Ethics

January 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: More on what happened and why to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that explanation we turn once again to veteran Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Norm, help us make sense of all this. Why right after the dust settled, or barely settled, after Newt Gingrich’s election, did the Democrats start complaining about the schedule?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: We had from December on, right through the vote almost, what seemed to be a pretty careful bipartisan process on the committee that was likely to lead to a unanimous or near unanimous vote in the Ethics Committee after this process was completed. There had been a much earlier agreement that they would finish this by the 21st of January, but it wasn’t set in rigid stone. When–right after the vote on Speaker Gingrich, which, of course, he won, the Republicans brought forward their overall rules package, and it included a rigid drop-dead deadline of the 21st of January. It, in effect, sandbagged the four members, two Democrats and two Republicans, on the subcommittee who were quite taken aback. And what we had as we saw in Kwame’s tape was at first a kind of gentle, well, what are you trying to do here. That actually over a few hours became more and more acrimonious. And then Democrats and the special counsel, who’d said we really need more time to finish writing the report, and we have a new member of the committee felt basically as if for political purposes a deadline had been set that was an unrealistic one. It was going to push to a vote the day after the inaugural, after all, without having all the information together for all the members to see. So they were seething when they went into this meeting on Wednesday to set a timetable given that deadline.

MARGARET WARNER: And so who got the best then of the agreement on Wednesday, after this 14-hour session? How did each side feel when that was over? And we saw the schedule.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, it was 14 hours of wrangling obviously, and I think Republicans came out of there believing that they had within a time frame that wasn’t great made all kinds of concessions to have several days of public hearings which obviously would have meant more and more information, much of it potentially very embarrassing to the Speaker, and then moving to a vote but with a report issued well after the vote. But Democrats came out of there still seething, and basically even though they agreed to this timetable then went to their press conference and said even though this is–this gives us within that time frame a kind of process that’s okay, this is wrong, and then Republicans felt that they had been sandbagged.

MARGARET WARNER: So they turned around, and as we just say, Nancy Johnson just trumped the Democrats and–

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: In effect, Nancy Johnson went from being on the floor when they discussed the rules package in effect saying, gee, this wasn’t my choice, it was kind of forced on me but we’ll do the best we can, going into a meeting and figuring that she had made all kinds of concessions and then saying, now they’ve gone public and made us feel bad, all right, we’ll teach them a lesson, and we’ll reverse course here but using parliamentary procedures that were strange and unusual, to say the last.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, even as we’re speaking here, I’m told that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats on the committee are holding a press conference saying the parliamentarian of the House says, in effect, Nancy Pelosi, didn’t act correctly.


MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. Nancy Johnson didn’t act correctly–


MARGARET WARNER: –in changing the schedule. On what basis could such a ruling be made?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They–the committee had voted basically to begin hearings on Monday. A decision to undo that has to come from a majority of a committee. A chair cannot unilaterally make that kind of a decision. Unlike every other committee in the House, which has more members of the majority party than the minority, the Ethics Committee, the committee on standards of official conduct, has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. So under other circumstances a chair could come in and have the votes of all the majority members. That’s not enough. It would have been a five to five vote. So she had no legal authority to change this schedule. In addition to that, as Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat, who was a member of the subcommittee, said, the notion of writing a final report before you’ve had the hearings and made the findings is putting the cart before the horse literally.

MARGARET WARNER: But as a practical matter, if the Republicans don’t want to show on Monday–

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It’s not clear that this will force a meeting of the committee. You can Democrats showing up and saying they’re holding a meeting but not having a quorum there. It adds to–

MARGARET WARNER: Because, of course, they would only have five people there, and you need–


MARGARET WARNER: –six people.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: What–exactly so. So what we have is a kind of stalemate now that either leads to more embarrassing partisan bickering and mudslinging, or quite possibly, having taken this to the brink in what is an unprecedented display of partisan division in an ethics process, they may very well meet on Sunday and try and iron things out a little bit more. Of course, remember, the Republican leaders in holding to this deadline, first, didn’t want it to stretch out for months and months, which is understandable. They wanted to get it over with at a time when few people would notice. And ironically now, of course, we’re all paying a whole lot more attention to this than we would have otherwise.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, there’s another element in this story today which has to do with a tape recording of a telephone conversation involving Newt Gingrich and others. Explain that briefly and how it fits in.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: What it did was literally a three-ring circus today. And what we had was some private citizens from Florida using a police scanner had gotten this conversation, apparently given it to a Democratic congressman hostile to Gingrich, who leaked it to the “New York Times.” He mentioned it. The conversation took place on the day of an agreement that Gingrich would say that he’d done things wrong but then would do no more to discuss his case or conspire with leaders. It’s not clear that this one meeting–he was allowed a meeting to talk to this leaders–was necessarily dramatically bad on his part, or a total breach, although his lawyers pushed further than they should have. But now we have not only an embarrassing tape of a conversation but, of course, a Democratic congressman leaking it to the press, a question of whether that was a breach of law. Cellular conversations are different than line phone conversation. But it simply adds to the notion of total partisan warfare here using every means legitimate and illegitimate, going back to Gingrich possibly doing things he shouldn’t have done, although that’s not quite clear, and a congressman doing something he shouldn’t have done. So what we have is a process that normally would have at least an Ethics Committee that holds together Democrats and Republicans breaking into partisan bickering. And we’ll have to wait till Sunday to see if they can go back to at least some sense of non-partisan activity.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Norm, thanks very much. We’ll be back next week to talk about it more.