House Reprimands, Penalizes Speaker
By John E. Yang
The ethics case and its resolution leave Gingrich with little leeway for future personal controversies, House Republicans said. Exactly one month before yesterday's vote, Gingrich admitted that he brought discredit to the House and broke its rules by failing to ensure that financing for two projects would not violate federal tax law and by giving the House ethics committee false information.
"Newt has done some things that have embarrassed House Republicans and embarrassed the House," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.). "If [the voters] see more of that, they will question our judgment."
House Democrats are likely to continue to press other ethics charges against Gingrich and the Internal Revenue Service is looking into matters related to the case that came to an end yesterday.
The 395 to 28 vote closes a tumultuous chapter that began Sept. 7, 1994, when former representative Ben Jones (D-Ga.), then running against Gingrich, filed an ethics complaint against the then-GOP whip. The complaint took on greater significance when the Republicans took control of the House for the first time in four decades, propelling Gingrich into the speaker's chair.
With so much at stake for each side -- the survival of the GOP's speaker and the Democrats' hopes of regaining control of the House -- partisanship strained the ethics process nearly to the breaking point.
All but two of the votes against the punishment were cast by Republicans, including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (Md.), many of whom said they believed the sanction -- especially the financial penalty -- was too severe.
Two Democrats, Reps. Earl F. Hilliard (Ala.) and Gene Taylor (Miss.), voted against the punishment. Taylor said the measure should have specified that the $300,000 come from personal funds, not campaign coffers or a legal expense fund. Hilliard did not return telephone calls.
In addition, five Democrats voted "present," many of them saying they believed the sanction was not severe enough. "If Newt Gingrich did what they said he did, he should have been censured," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), one of the five who voted "present." A censure, second only in severity to expulsion, would have threatened Gingrich's speakership.
House ethics committee members took pride in yesterday's bipartisan resolution of the case. "We have proved to the American people that no matter how rough the process is, we can police ourselves, we do know right from wrong," said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who headed the investigative subcommittee that charged Gingrich.
But even as they brought the case to a close, committee Republicans and Democrats traded potshots over the chaos of the last two weeks, during which an agreement for lengthy televised hearings collapsed amid partisan bickering.
The ethics case added to the last congressional session's fierce partisanship, as Democrats sought to embarrass House Republicans with it in last year's elections. Lawmakers in both parties said they hope the vote to punish Gingrich will help ease those tensions.
"If our action today fails to chasten this body and bring a halt to the crippling partisanship and animosity that has surrounded us, then we will have lost an opportunity," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), ethics committee chairman.
Similarly, President Clinton, when asked about the matter, said: "The House should do its business and then we should get back to the people's business."
For Gingrich, it was another humbling event in a remarkable series of peaks and valleys since 1994. That year, he led his party to the promised land of control of the House and Senate, only to threaten it when he was blamed for two partial government shutdowns during the battle over the budget, making him seem reckless. Then he complained about his treatment on a long flight aboard Air Force One, making him seem petty. The GOP narrowly retained its House majority last November, giving him a brief reprieve. The next month, he admitted to the charges brought by the ethics subcommittee.
The speaker was barely visible yesterday, staying away from the House floor during the 90-minute debate and vote on his punishment. He was in his office and did not watch the proceedings on television, according to spokeswoman Lauren Maddox. Gingrich left late yesterday afternoon for a two-day GOP House leadership retreat at Airlie Farm and Conference Center in Fauquier County, Va. As he left, he was asked if he was glad the case was over. He smiled broadly and said "yes."
House Democrats had considered trying to force a vote yesterday on reconsidering Gingrich's Jan. 7 reelection as speaker -- the first for a Republican in 68 years -- but decided against it, fearing it would distract from the harsh punishment being meted out. In addition, Democrats believe enough damaging information has been presented to tarnish the speaker, Democratic leadership aides said.
"This is not a vote on whether Mr. Gingrich should remain speaker," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the ethics panel's top Democrat in the Gingrich case. "In the days and weeks to come, Mr. Gingrich and each member of this House should consider how these charges bear on the question of his speakership."
In a strongly worded report, special counsel James M. Cole concluded that Gingrich had violated tax law and lied to the investigating panel, but the subcommittee would not go that far. In exchange for the subcommittee agreeing to modify the charges against him, Gingrich agreed to the penalty Dec. 20 as part of a deal in which he admitted guilt.
Johnson called the reprimand and financial penalty "tough and unprecedented. It is also appropriate," she said. "No one is above the rules of the House."
The ethics committee that handled the charges against Gingrich went out of business at midnight last night without resolving complaints that the speaker received improper gifts, contributions and support from GOPAC, the political action committee he once headed. House Democrats are likely to submit those charges to the new ethics committee.
In addition, the Internal Revenue Service is looking into the use of tax-deductible charitable contributions to finance the college course Gingrich taught, which was at the center of the ethics case, and the ethics committee is making the material it gathered available to the tax agency.
At a closed-door meeting of House Republicans yesterday morning, the speaker noted his agreement to accept the sanction, which the ethics committee approved on a 7 to 1 vote Friday night, and said he wanted to get the matter behind him, according to lawmakers who attended.
Many House Republicans said they had trouble reconciling their leaders' characterization of Gingrich's rules violations as tantamount to a jaywalking ticket and the magnitude of the penalty. "That argument loses its steam [when] you talk about $300,000," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said that had he known what was in the ethics committee's report, he would not have voted for Gingrich as speaker. "The gray got grayer when you read the report," he said. "When I think of my three boys and what kind of example I want to set for them for leadership in this country, gray is not the example."
But some lawmakers said the $300,000 financial penalty, described as a reimbursement to the ethics committee for the additional cost Gingrich caused it when he gave it false information, was too severe.
"I was willing to swallow hard and vote for the reprimand, but when they add the $300,000 assessment . . . that's excessive," said House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), one of three committee chairmen to vote against the punishment.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who cast the lone dissenting vote on the ethics committee, said of Gingrich's violations: "They are real mistakes but they shouldn't be hanging offenses."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) gave a spirited speech calling the penalty unwarranted. Answering those who said a speaker should be held to a higher standard of ethical conduct, DeLay said: "The highest possible standard does not mean an impossible standard no American could possibly reach." He closed by declaring: "Let's stop this madness, let's stop the cannibalism."
The last phrase echoed the May 31, 1989, resignation speech of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who called on lawmakers "to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end." Wright resigned in an ethics scandal triggered by a complaint filed by Gingrich.
Despite the partisanship that surrounded the Gingrich ethics case for more than two years, DeLay's speech provided the only spark of yesterday's debate. With Gingrich willing to accept the punishment, the outcome was never in doubt.
Still, more lawmakers were on the floor than for the average House debate; many of them were reading Cole's report. Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), presiding over the debate, took the unusual step of reading aloud from the House rule that admonishes lawmakers to "maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect" at all times.
As they have since Gingrich publicly admitted to the charges Dec. 21, Republicans sought to minimize the speaker's misdeeds while Democrats tried to make them more sinister.
Rep. Steven Schiff (R-N.M.), a member of the ethics investigative subcommittee that charged Gingrich, called the speaker's submission of false information to the panel "a comedy of errors." But Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it a "violation of trust. . . . We trust each other that we will deal truthfully with each other."
Republicans also sought to portray the question of using charitable donations to finance projects that appeared to have a political intent as a matter of unsettled tax law. But Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio), a member of the ethics panel, countered that "ethical behavior may be more important when the lines are blurred than when they are clear."
Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), who had been the ethics panel's top Democrat, was among those who voted "present."
He withdrew from the Gingrich case last week after being implicated in the leaking of a tape recording of a telephone conference call involving the speaker, which Republicans said was illegally made.
McDermott did not return telephone calls.
Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company