Members of Congress are rushing to amend their travel and campaign records, fearing that the controversy over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay will trigger an ethics war that will bring greater scrutiny to their own travel and official activities.
Some offices have sharply limited staff travel, and some members are not traveling at all because of the intense review they believe they will face in coming months.
Lawmakers are paying old restaurant bills, filing missing forms and correcting erroneous ones as journalists and political opponents comb through records and DeLay (R-Tex.) attempts to answer questions about travel financing and his past relationships with lobbyists.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wrote to the Federal Election Commission on April 15 to report that he had discovered that the Washington restaurant Signatures had not charged his credit card -- as he said he had directed -- for a 2003 fundraiser for 16 people that cost $1,846. The event was hosted by Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist and part-owner of the restaurant who is now under congressional and criminal investigation for his handling of millions of dollars in fees from Indian tribes. Abramoff was not at the event.
"I never thought about this event again until it was brought to my attention very recently that no payment or reimbursement for the event has ever appeared on our FEC report," Vitter wrote. He wrote to Signatures at the same time, directing the management to "charge my credit card today."
In another case, an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had not reported a 2004 trip to South Korea until a Washington Post reporter asked her office about it. Eddie Charmaine Manansala, Pelosi's special assistant on East Asian affairs, filed a disclosure form for the $9,087 trip a few hours after the newspaper's inquiry and sent a note to the ethics committee saying, "I did not know I was supposed to file these forms and I apologize for its lateness."
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) even asked the ethics committee to investigate him after a reporter for the newspaper Roll Call pointed out that a travel disclosure form from 2001 listed the lobbying firm Rooney Group International as paying for a $1,782 trip to Boston, which would be a violation of House rules.
Abercrombie's aides said they have since determined that the lobbying firm's expenses were reimbursed by the nonprofit group that Abercrombie addressed on the trip, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. House rules state that the prohibition against lobbyists paying for members' travel applies "even where the lobbyist . . . will later be reimbursed for those expenses by a non-lobbyist client."
DeLay's staff said he will turn over records -- including letters showing how his travel was arranged -- to the ethics committee, which is not currently functioning because of a dispute between the parties. The committee admonished DeLay three times last year for what it concluded was inappropriate official conduct.
House Republican aides said yesterday for the first time that they believe they will have to reverse or modify the ethics rules that were passed on a party-line vote in January and have caused Democrats to refuse to allow the ethics committee to organize. Republican leaders had been trying to avoid a new floor vote over the rules, but aides said they now are convinced that they need to get the committee going so that Democrats cannot accuse them of squelching an investigation of DeLay.
As reports about DeLay's travel with lobbyists mount, Republican leaders are attempting to shift attention to questionable activities of Democrats.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) warned on Sean Hannity's radio show last week that there are "four or five cases out there dealing with top-level Democrats," whom he did not name.
The threats and maneuvering mark the end of an ethics truce that has existed between the parties since the battles that led to the downfall of House speakers Jim Wright (D-Tex.) in 1989 and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1998. Since then, the parties have largely refrained from filing charges against each other out of a calculation that they both lose in such contests.
Jan W. Baran, a Republican lobbying and campaign finance expert at Wiley, Rein & Fielding, says that in reaction to DeLay's woes, none of his clients who are members of Congress are traveling at the expense of private interests these days.