A dust-up over a key plank of the new Democratic House ethics package erupted late last week after Members lodged concerns that proposed corporate jet travel curbs go much further than their authors intended - even barring lawmakers from using their own personal airplanes.
And while Democrats have defended the language, the Federal Aviation Administration agrees with the measure's critics that the wording may even go so far as to prohibit Member travel on all private and commercial aircraft.
"As the rules are written," said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette, "it seems that no Member can fly on any non-government airplane."
Last Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking her to alter language in Democrats' newly unveiled rules rewrite that he claimed contained a "glaring error," which the four-term Republican alleged was a result of Democrats bypassing the usual committee process in a sloppy rush to pass campaign promises to change federal stem-cell, ethics and minimum wage laws.
"The presence of these careless errors demonstrates the type of product that comes from a closed process without opportunities for discussion and debate," Issa wrote. "I urge you to consider future legislation through regular order and in the open manner in which you have repeatedly promised that you would."
Issa staffers first noticed the awkward wording last Wednesday evening. After notifying their boss, who is a private pilot, Issa discussed the matter with fellow pilots in the House, many of whom use small planes for constituent work in their sometimes vast Congressional districts.
The confusing language, tucked away in the ethics package's second section, states that Members "may not use personal funds, official funds or campaign funds for a flight on a non-government airplane that is not licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate for compensation or hire."
To those who usually just board airplanes, the intent in the wording appears clear: to avoid the type of public outage caused last year when, for example, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) hitched a ride to a court appearance on a tobacco company's private jet.
Many lawmakers in both parties, particularly members of the leadership, hitch rides on corporate jets to travel to and from campaign events.
But according to FAA lawyers, Issa and a handful of other lawmakers, the mistake in the Democrats' proposal was obvious: the FAA does not license airplanes, just pilots and carriers. Well-intended or not, the result would be to bar travel by House Members on any plane that is neither owned by the government nor licensed.
That is, every commercial and private airplane.
While the wording of the law may be awkward, John Santore, a spokesman for House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), said the meaning of the law should not be in dispute and "if there is a conflict, we'll work to resolve it."
"The intent of the legislation is clear," Santore said. "This is all about prohibiting a corporation or lobbyist from having unfettered access to a Member of Congress for hours by paying for a flight or flying them on their own aircraft."
"It gives access that a usual citizen would not have," he added.
But access - to constituents - is the primary concern to Rep. Collin Peterson (D), who uses his private plane to shuttle around his western Minnesota district, which includes more than 25 counties. Last Thursday night, Peterson requested a colloquy on the House floor, during which Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a member of the Rules panel, attempted to clarify that the ban does not apply to Members' personal aircraft, while stopping short of admitting a snafu in the rule's wording
"I want to assure my colleagues that this is not the intent of this provision," Hastings said. "We will work closely with ethics committee and the Committee on House Administration to ensure that this is how these committees will interpret the rule."
On Friday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's (D-Md.) office said the Hastings-Peterson exchange should satisfy any concerns private pilots in the House may have.
Although a Peterson aide said Hastings' word satisfies his concerns, a spokeswoman for Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said Graves prefers Democratic leaders "fix the language of the rule." Graves' 20-county plus Missouri district stretches north and east from Kansas City
"Many Members of Congress, particularly in rural or large areas, rely on airplanes as a primary means of transportation to travel within their districts," said Brianne Hyder, a spokeswoman for Graves. "Taking away a member's ability to travel by plane limits their ability to serve their constituents."
While changes to House rules affect only that chamber, current Senate ethics legislation, as proposed, could cement the unintentional error in all Congressional offices, according to Issa spokesman Frederick Hill.
But unlike in the House, Hill predicted the Senate's more deliberative process would iron out the semantic wrinkles that went unnoticed on the House side "because of the closed process used by House Democrats that doesn't allow errors to be corrected."
"There's lots of big bills that contain errors," Hill said. "In a committee or open process, it can be corrected."
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