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Gingrich Ethics Hearings

January 17, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now more on what happened today and why from Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, joined tonight by Congress expert Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Norm, what would you add to, in words of summary, to what Kwame has just reported?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: What we saw here, Jim, was, in effect, the result of a plea bargain that took place on December 21st between the four members of the ethics subcommittee, two Republicans, Porter Goss, Steven Schiff, two Democrats, Ben Cardin and Nancy Pelosi, working with counsel Jim Cole, and of course the other party was Speaker Gingrich.

The plea bargain basically was that they would recommend a penalty short of a censure, which would have automatically removed him from the speakership, which would have resulted in probably fighting it and leading through six months at least of very bitter struggles. In return, he would plea to something that we’d never seen before, something in-between the reprimand, which was just short of a censure and a censure by adding in the fine because they wanted to keep this one pretty serious business, and the other part of the plea bargain was that the Speaker would admit to it on the 21st, say nothing, not have his surrogates of party leaders go out there and try and put a spin on it, and give them time to go through a hearing process. And the hope was that this hearing process would have started a few days ago, would lead to a unanimous opinion in the Ethics Committee and maybe a unanimous vote on the House floor.

All of that fell apart on January 7th, with a rules change that the Republican leadership brought in to put the date of the 21st as the final drop dead date on this, and then both Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in, of course, a disastrous battle between themselves up till now. Today was the day of hearings, the beginning of hearings. It’ll have to end with the vote on the 21st. That’s what the rules say, but this is clearly a major attempt by the members of the subcommittee and the committee to try and bring it back to where they were.

JIM LEHRER: To put it back together.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Put it back together but with what is clearly a very tough statement by the council to counter, in effect, the comments made, for example, by a member of the Republican leadership, Bill Paxon, the head of the campaign committee, that this was the political equivalent of jaywalking. And what Jim Cole said was this is not jaywalking, it’s not reckless driving; it comes a little bit closer to maybe the political equivalent of involuntary manslaughter. And now we’re going to get, of course, some discussion of what exactly the offenses are, what was intentional and what was not. And they’ll go on through the night tomorrow and then vote on Tuesday.

JIM LEHRER: Now, explain the $300,000. As I understand, the $300,000 is intended to make up some of the cost of this investigation, is that right.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Democrats are calling it a fine. Mr. Cole called it a reimbursement for the cost. And the idea here is that Speaker Gingrich on two separate occasions in letters, one that he–was drafted by his lawyer but he signed and knew and read beforehand, another that was signed by his lawyer but which he approved–stated flatly that GOPAC is not involved in the tax aspects of this. That was false. And they had to go through apparently several more weeks of investigation to rectify all of that. And the idea here is that having made a statement that was not accurate, he will reimburse the committee for all the extra costs that Congress had to incur to make up for that inaccuracy.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Paul. Norm says this may be the equivalent of involuntary manslaughter, is that what you’re saying?

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: I think Norm said that that was Jim Cole’s–

JIM LEHRER: Right.

PAUL GIGOT: –view of it. Cole did not use those words. Cole was tough. Cole was very tough. And I think Norm is right about the essential facts. The interesting thing that came out today was the–not that there was a plea bargain but the sanctions involved, and that, in fact, the two Democrats and the two Republicans on the subcommittee had both agreed to the reprimand back in December. And what that meant was once that deal was struck, the other members of the committee probably understood at the same time that that meant that Newt Gingrich would keep–be able to keep the speakership, if he could get his own party to vote for him. That explains–

JIM LEHRER: To support the agreement, you mean?

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. Once the agreement was struck Gingrich basically made the decision I can agree to this, and it’s going to be a very rough time, but I’ll probably keep the speakership. What we learned today was that that essential nature of that sanction which was short of censure and so he could keep the speakership explains an awful lot of the partisan mayhem in-between then and now because the people who wanted Gingrich gone, some of the Democrats, knew that with two Democrats on the subcommittee endorsing something short of censure, they were not and probably not going to be able to do that. And so they really raised the rhetorical ante.

The Republicans came back, and you had a real nasty fight, but it looks to me now as if we’ll have some more rough times, but essentially the subcommittee has–the committee has put things together, back together in a bipartisan basis, and while it’s a very tough penalty on Newt Gingrich, it looks like he’ll keep the speakership.

JIM LEHRER: Humpty Dumpty back together again?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don’t share Paul’s rosy scenario on this one. I think if you look at it just ten days ago, Newt Gingrich was re-elected Speaker, 216 members of his own party voted with him, nine didn’t. I ask tonight after Jim Cole’s presentation who feels better, who feels more comfortable politically, who feels more secure, who feels they might have been sandbagged? I mean, this was jaywalking, organized, orchestrated defense. This is jaywalking.

You don’t get a $300,000 fine for jaywalking. I mean, this is very serious stuff, and I think, you know, that the idea that this was just going to be a mild slap on the wrist, I mean, that’s tough stuff there tonight, that Jim Cole and now Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has produced a document that shows there was an organized effort on the part of the Speaker and his political allies in the Republican ranks to discredit, to go after the Speaker’s critics in the House, including John Lewis, the much decorated and respected veteran and wounded veterans of the civil rights struggles from Georgia, George Miller of California. I mean, they named names, so I don’t see this going away. I don’t see it being either a happy conclusion. I think the–I think the Democrats had a bad week, a very bad week, no question about it. A tape turned out to be the equivalent–

JIM LEHRER: Jim McDermott–

MARK SHIELDS: Jim McDermott. It turned out to be equivalent of Mark Fuhrman’s bloody glove. And the Republicans turned into so many Johnny Cochrans, saying, that’s it, that’s it. But I really think that the Speaker’s had a very bad Friday.

PAUL GIGOT: A political point about the rest of the Republicans. If you are worried at all about having voted for Newt Gingrich for Speaker, you can go back, if you vote for a reprimand and a $300,000 fine, you can go back to your constituents, and you can’t be accused of a slap on the wrist; you can’t be accused of a cover-up; you can’t be accused of going lightly on your guy. I mean, this is–

JIM LEHRER: It never happened before to a Speaker of the House.v PAUL GIGOT: Sure, that’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Has it ever happened to a Speaker of the House?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: No. We have never had a Speaker of the House sanctioned in any fashion in this way. Of course, Jim Wright, they were moving towards a very serious sanction.

JIM LEHRER: And he quit.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And he quit before. And there’s other element here that ought to be mentioned, though, Jim, and that is that in this report, what Jim Cole said, a part of the agreement was that not only would the Speaker not try to orchestrate any effort behind the scenes himself or through his surrogates to try and either downplay or put spin on this but also that the committee–

JIM LEHRER: But he made a big point of it that only public–that only applied to public things, not to–I mean, in other words, they could talk privately among themselves but they couldn’t do anything publicly, right?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. And the other part of this agreement was that the committee would move in an expeditious fashion but would be given the time that was necessary to lay out this case. And Jim Cole made it very clear that the subcommittee believed that Speaker Gingrich had violated that part of the agreement but that, in effect, if the choice was to back off the agreement and then have what has been civil war turn into anarchy of an even greater level for months thereafter, they weren’t going to do anything more about that, but very explicitly said that the Speaker had violated that aspect of the agreement.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s–all three of you–start with you, Paul, what does censure mean, do you think, in a practical way and in a political way, just the word “censure,” what this means for Newt Gingrich.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Reprimand.

PAUL GIGOT: Reprimand.

JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry, reprimand. I’m sorry, whoop.

PAUL GIGOT: I think the only people who were censured was Civil War times.

JIM LEHRER: Right, right.

PAUL GIGOT: And those were people who helped the South.

JIM LEHRER: Right, right, right.

PAUL GIGOT: Reprimand means that he is rebuked by the–by his colleagues, by his peers. It means that he is taken down a peg in moral authority. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And it’s–it’s something that if you are a public leader, you don’t want to have to endure. I mean, I think that it’s–it’s something that is something unique to Congress. I mean, for the President of the United States the only sanction against you is you have to be impeached, you can’t be indicted. Remember the–

JIM LEHRER: There’s nothing in-between election and impeachment.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s correct. This is something that the House has done, and I think it’s certainly true that in the last 20 years what’s happened is ethics had become tools of partisan warfare, and we’ve seen a lot more of these cases so that if you look through the history books, the censures and the reprimands, a lot of them were only long ago in the past and many more ethics cases have now come to the fore in the last couple of decades.

JIM LEHRER: How would you define reprimand?

MARK SHIELDS: Makes it tough for the Speaker. The Speaker has–he’s asked for the toughest vote that he could get from his colleagues in the opening day. When it comes to whatever the tough votes that lie ahead and he goes to lean on whoever it is of the 216 they can say I gave at the office.

JIM LEHRER: I gave on my first day.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m already in there. And the other thing is that the Speaker in his rise to power claimed a higher moral ground. He accused the Democrats–it wasn’t just a question of Jim Wright or Tom Foley or Tip O’Neill–the Democrats were corrupt. That was his charge. That was his curried theme, and that there was a higher moral calling to being a Republican insurgent. And I think that certainly has been decimated.

JIM LEHRER: Norm, back to a point that Mark made a moment ago, is this going to hold? Is this plea bargain going to hold, do you think?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It will probably hold now, but it’s still very, very fragile. The feelings are hard here inside the House. There was an effort made by some Republicans earlier to try and move this to the lowest level, which is a letter of reproval, in the continuum of penalties. And they’ve tried to calibrate these things over the years.

JIM LEHRER: Explain those. What are they? Take us through those.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The most serious is expulsion. You’re thrown out of the House. That has been–you can count the number of expulsions in the history of the country on the fingers of one hand, as Paul said. That’s basically for treason or bribery, is what we’ve had, serious bribery. The next penalty, that’s the equivalent of the death penalty–the next penalty down is censure. And I suppose we could call that the equivalent of life imprisonment. That is for very, very serious things.

And what it amounts to is you stand on the floor of the House surrounded by your colleagues, and the Speaker reads a bill of particulars, an indictment of your conduct. It’s as shameful as you could imagine. Imagine the head of the American Medical Association standing on the floor over national television and having his colleagues say that you have committed shameful acts. Below that is this reprimand. Now a reprimand still involves a formal vote of the House. They are saying you’ve done serious violations but you’re not–you don’t have to be there in the well when it happens. And then a letter of reproval is, in effect, a light tap on the wrist.

The committee sends you a letter saying shouldn’t have done that. And Speaker Gingrich has had a few of those before. So, you know, what we’re talking about here is we had some Republicans saying that this is just a letter of reproval, we could have easily had this turn, and it’s possible that it still will, and the Democrats saying enough of this, we want censure, and Republicans saying this is way too heavy, we want a letter of reproval, and have a bitter battle. But I think the odds of that happening now are fairly small because they’ve made such fools of themselves.

JIM LEHRER: You mean fools of themselves between December 21st and today?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. And today now you have the four members of the subcommittee who are heroes in this process trying as best they can to try and keep the institution together now attempting to pull some glue back.

PAUL GIGOT: I think you might see a group of Democrats try to go for censure but it’s going to be much more difficult for them with Ben Cardin, Nancy Pelosi endorsing reprimand, and I think frankly because they knew some of the other Democrats, the real Gingrich haters, the ones who wanted him gone, knew it was going to be reprimand, that’s why they leaked that document, transcript. They said, ah ha, this is something we can–

JIM LEHRER: You mean the tape?

PAUL GIGOT: The tape.

JIM LEHRER: And that backfired.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. And they did that because they thought this was the thing that could turn it over the edge into censure, and he’d finally be gone.

JIM LEHRER: Did you read it that way?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t read it–I don’t think you can come to a comprehensive conclusion at this point as to what happened. I think it was not organized, it was not orchestrated. There were a lot of people acting individually. I don’t think there’s any question that the leaked tape gave the Republicans a wonderful chance–those who are defending the Speaker–to, you know, ride their own high moral horse and say, oh my goodness, look at this. I mean, all of a sudden, Republicans who had been to the exclusionary rule, Jim, for generations, became great civil libertarians. And it was–and they had a great political advantage. And there’s no question about it. I mean, and the Democrats looked bad.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think’s going to happen between now and the vote on Tuesday? Do you think the Democrats are going to try to knock it up to censure?

MARK SHIELDS: I think–I think this is the fascinating, fascinating development. We don’t know how this is playing right now. I mean, here we are at dinner time.

JIM LEHRER: Right. It’s still going on.

MARK SHIELDS: There was no schedule. There was no–I mean, is the Speaker going to come in and say I want to be heard, I don’t know, is–you know, we don’t–the thing has a life of its own right now. I don’t think it’s something that’s carefully scripted.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that it’s possible that the silliness is over, I mean, not the silliness, you said they were maybe making him–I’m trying to paraphrase what you said–they’ve made fools of themselves, that they’ve learned that lesson and they’re going to let the thing play, or what do you think?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think most members of the House saw this degenerating in a way that all would suffer. We’ve never had an ethics fight work this way, Jim. Every time we’ve had a serious question no matter what it was, whether it was ABSCAM, where you had one member expelled, Ozzie Meyers, or Koreagate, remember, Charles Wilson was censured on the floor of the House, or the, the Wright case. They’ve all tried to come together to protect the basic integrity of the institution. This time it fell apart, and I think virtually everybody now is shocked by what they’ve done, and there will be an attempt made very much to try and pull it back and to end on this note, but it won’t end on this note. I mean, even if this episode does, the hard feelings will remain, and they may explode at a later point.

JIM LEHRER: About something else.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: About something else entirely.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all very much.