Pelosi Looks to Boost Oversight of Intelligence and Ethics
Friday, December 15, 2006
House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi announced yesterday that she will create a new panel within the Appropriations Committee to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies and a House task force to examine establishing an outside ethics panel.
The twin moves demonstrated the delicate balance that Pelosi (D-Calif.) is trying to strike to maintain her political power while fulfilling the promises of the Democrats' successful 2006 campaign. Both decisions fall short of recommendations coming from the bipartisan commission that examined the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and from ethics groups. But they go well beyond what Republicans were willing to do while they controlled Congress and beyond even what some Democrats were anticipating in recent weeks.
"I think it's a significant step forward on improving oversight and a major step forward on correcting the dysfunction on Capitol Hill," former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said of the intelligence plan.
In 2004, the commission urged Congress either to create a House-Senate intelligence panel or grant the House and Senate intelligence committees the power not only to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies but also to fund them and shape intelligence policy. The intelligence committees' gains would come at the expense of the Armed Services committees and the Appropriations panels' defense subcommittees, which now control intelligence spending. But, the commissioners said, intelligence agencies were routinely ignoring the intelligence committees because those panels did not have the power of the purse.
Appropriators, led by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally and the incoming chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, strongly objected to any efforts to strip them of jurisdiction over the intelligence budget. Democratic sources on the Appropriations, intelligence and Armed Services committees said last month that Pelosi was leaning toward establishing a panel to examine options for reorganizing the House along the lines suggested by the Sept. 11 commission.
But news reports on the issue emboldened commissioners and families of Sept. 11 victims to renew their push for stronger congressional oversight on intelligence. So Pelosi found a middle ground: Members of her intelligence oversight panel would come from both the intelligence and Appropriations committees, and would have the tasks of overseeing the intelligence agencies and drafting their budgets. Those budgets, however, would be folded into the larger annual defense spending bill, which would still be under the jurisdiction of Murtha's subcommittee and the larger House Appropriations Committee.
The plan "removes the barriers between the House appropriators and authorizers, makes the oversight stronger and makes the American people safer," Pelosi said.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would not promise to follow suit.
"We will work with key senators to carefully examine the House proposal as part of our larger discussion about the best ways to ensure implementation of the spirit and letter of the 9/11 commission's recommendations," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
Similarly, proposals to establish an outside panel of experts to examine ethics complaints have met staunch opposition from ethics committee members, who say they should be expected to do their job. Rep. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.), one of the Democrats' point men on the ethics package that will come to a vote in January, said last week that an outside panel would not be part of the initial wave of ethics rules but could come up later.
Pelosi put some weight behind that yesterday, saying she and Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming House minority leader, would create a panel to report back by late March on an outside panel.
Joan Claybrook, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said she is sympathetic to the internal politics involved. But she added that the panel "worries me enormously," saying "I think they ought to bite the bullet" and create an independent Office of Public Integrity now.
Aides close to Pelosi said that by creating such an investigatory panel, she is all but ensuring she will push for an outside group, possibly of former House members and judges, to examine ethics complaints and watch over ethics committee efforts.
Democratic leaders circulated their proposed rules changes yesterday ahead of a conference call with House Democrats. They include a ban on gifts and travel from lobbyists, preapproval from the ethics committee on all lawmakers' travel funded by outside groups, a ban on the use of corporate jets, and mandatory ethics training. Under the rules package, Republicans would be guaranteed some votes on amendments. Members would be given extra time to read bills before a vote is scheduled, and votes could no longer be held open indefinitely while House leaders twist arms to win passage.
House-Senate negotiating conferences would be opened somewhat, and provisions could no longer be sneaked into final agreements after the negotiations are closed.
On budget matters, rules would be reinstated saying tax cuts or spending increases would have to be offset by tax hikes or spending cuts to ensure the deficit does not expand. Special parliamentary rules that prohibit filibusters in the Senate could no longer be used on legislation that expands the budget deficit, a slap at Republicans who used such rules to pass successive waves of large tax cuts. And home-district pet projects, known as earmarks, would have to be claimed by their sponsors, who would have to certify that the earmarks would not benefit them or their spouses.