A legislative snafu in the new House prohibition against taking trips on corporate jets has started a tug-of-war over ethics rules between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
For at least a week, Pelosi and Boehner have argued quietly over changes to the ethics package passed during the first hours of the 110th Congress. Pelosi would like to fix an embarrassing mistake in the new rules banning travel on corporate jets that, because of way it is written, unintentionally grounded a bipartisan group of about a dozen members who fly their own small aircraft or hitch rides with others.
Boehner is refusing to let a legislative fix come to the floor by unanimous consent (UC). Using the airplane snafu as leverage, he is demanding changes to the ethics package and refuses to allow Democrats to alter the rules in a piecemeal fashion, according to a Republican lawmaker, as well as GOP and Democratic aides.
The House rule forbids lawmakers from boarding any "non-governmental airplane that is not licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] to operate for compensation or hire." Most, if not all, of the small planes in which members are traveling are not so licensed.
Bringing legislation to the floor by unanimous consent is reserved for uncontroversial measures because both parties pass the legislation by voice vote rather than by forcing each member to record his or her vote, which can be used against them in the next campaign.
"[Boehner] wants to do this all at once or he won't agree to a UC," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a member involved in talks seeking a deal.
A Democratic aide close to the talks said Pelosi approached the GOP leadership and the two sides met to try to fix the mistake. Boehner indicated that he wants other changes to the ethics package but would not reveal what they were, the aide said.
"They are completely jamming up this process, so we're evaluating what options we have to go forward," the aide added, saying Democrats hope to find a solution sometime this month.
GOP aides counter that talks have broken down because Democrats realized that a pre-existing FAA rule prevented owners of small, non-commercial aircraft from accepting any compensation.
But a Democratic aide said the party's House leadership has already worked with the FAA to address the issue and is ready to move the measure to the floor. The provision would allow an exemption for a lawmaker to ride in a friend's plane, as long as the member proves to the ethics committee that the friendship pre-dated the travel.
Issa said Boehner is especially concerned about the way Democrats used parliamentary procedure to certify that the recent continuing resolution funding the government contained no earmarks when, in fact, he argued that it contained many earmarks that continued funding for projects inserted in previous years.
According to Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a champion of earmark reform, Democrats employed a parliamentary technique that Republicans either didn't know about or simply didn't use during their 12 years in the majority. The technique allows Democrats to certify that the bill does not contain earmarks and to prevent Republicans from challenging that assertion.
As long as the manager of the bill states on the House floor that it is earmark-free, as Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) did with the continuing resolution, it cannot be challenged with a point of order, Flake said.
"I've learned around this place, as good as your rules are - and we have some good rules - as long as you can simply waive them, they don't mean much," he lamented.
Boehner wants to change House rules to allow a point of order or some other form of challenge, Flake said. If Pelosi does not agree, the minority leader could keep refusing to let changes to the ethics package come to the floor by unanimous consent. This would force Democrats to decide whether to bring the bill to the floor through regular order, which could attract more attention to the drafting mistake on corporate jet travel.
"Democrats went on a legislative binge at the beginning of this Congress and now they're waking up with a hangover as to what they have done," one GOP aide remarked.
The timing of the disagreement may only serve to strengthen Boehner's resolve. Conservative Republicans are renewing their pledge to tackle bloated earmark spending as the March 16 deadline for earmark requests to the House Appropriations Committee approaches.
The standoff could continue indefinitely, except that a bipartisan group of angry lawmakers is pressuring their leaders to resolve the matter.
Many of the members affected by the jet provision, including Reps. Issa, Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), are infuriated by the lack of progress. In Peterson's case, he decided to be better safe than sorry and has stopped flying his own plane, a single-engine four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza.
"This has been really frustrating," Peterson said. "And my constituents are outraged. There was a letter to the editor [in the local paper] saying I should change parties over this because the Democratic leaders don't seem to know how to legislate..."
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