The Republicans’ desire for a swift and neat resolution of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s confessed ethical breach has begun to run into serious obstacles.
GOP leaders are counting on quick action producing mild sanctions and the reelection of Gingrich as speaker. But some House Democrats have vowed to slow the pace of the House Ethics Committee’s deliberations and force Republicans, if they choose, to re-elect Gingrich as speaker before his ethics case has been resolved.
“The Republican strategy has been to stall the investigation for two years and now they want it resolved in two weeks,” an aide to the House Democratic leadership said Monday. “They want to sweep it under the rug. We are not going to agree to it.”
House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan, Gingrich’s chief political antagonist, is demanding the Ethics Committee hearing be open to the public. “It ought to be an open hearing so the American people can have this laid out and can understand the dynamics,” Bonior said.
The House Ethics Committee chairman and others have cautioned it might not be possible for the panel’s 10 members to fully digest the charges detailed in a 22-page Statement of Alleged Violation prepared by an investigative subcommittee and recommend an appropriate penalty before the 105th Congress gathers Jan. 7.
Last Saturday, Gingrich signed the subcommittee’s report and admitted he had provided untrue information about the college course he taught that was at the center of the ethics probe.
While Gingrich and his allies have cast the speaker’s ethical infractions as largely insignificant, House members are likely to hear a far less favorable interpretation when James M. Cole, the Washington white-collar crime attorney retained by the ethics panel to oversee the probe, presents his recommendations.
Republicans cannot easily write off Cole as politically hostile to Gingrich, as they have attacked Bonior’s motives. And Democrats said they will press to learn Cole’s recommendations.
Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., chairman of the Ethics Committee, said in an interview with the Associated Press Sunday night that while she hoped the committee could act promptly, “It’s very hard when you have two weeks, both with major holidays.”
Most of the committee members are not planning to return to the capital until after the Jan. 1. “They’re scattered to the four winds,” explained one congressional aide. Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, is vacationing in Italy and is not due back until Jan. 5.
The committee is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, adding to the difficulties of finding a speedy resolution.
It is not clear whether the committee’s sanction hearing will be open to the public. Committee members will decide that after they review the case material. Since Gingrich has conceded the charges, there will be no formal presentation of the evidence by Cole. Instead, he and Gingrich’s lawyers will make oral or written arguments to the full committee on how severe the penalty ought to be.
The report concluded that Gingrich should have consulted a lawyer to ensure that using tax-deductible contributions to finance both a college course he taught and a televised town hall meeting he held would not violate federal tax law. Furthermore, it said, the speaker gave the panel untrue information when it investigated those projects.
By accepting the report, but insisting his misdeeds were not intentional, Gingrich shortcircuited the House ethics process and avoided a public hearing.