By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—They’ve done the easy things. They’ve banned the junkets and the free meals and the hard-to-get tickets to sporting events and a few other lovely self-indulgences that lawmakers on Capitol Hill had come to consider their very own entitlement programs.
Democrats who now control the House of Representatives, having wrested it from Republicans whose “culture of corruption” became a rhetorical cudgel during last fall’s congressional campaigns, could, pretty much, stop tightening up. No doubt some of them would very much like to. But not the woman whose job portfolio includes setting the rules under which House members must conduct themselves.
“Believe me, if there’s a truism on earth, it is that we are not finished,” says Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. “We’ve passed those things first to deal with the most egregious things and to keep our promise to the American public. But we don’t consider—any of us—that we, by any means, have done all we need to do to clean up and make the process fair.”
She delivers the challenge in her soft Kentucky accent, undiminished through years of living in upstate New York and in Washington, where her constituents from the region that surrounds Rochester and Buffalo first sent her in 1986. She says it without guile, as if this pledge is not a political sound bite but a subtle nudge to her peers.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Slaughter is the most powerful woman in a chamber fairly bursting with newly empowered women. She chairs the Rules Committee, the panel that sets not only the rules of the House but the terms under which all legislation is considered. Nothing gets to the floor for a vote without first passing through Rules; no amendments may be offered without its sanction. And nothing is expected to leave the confines of the panel that would somehow embarrass the majority.
During the dozen years of Republican reign, the Rules Committee became an instrument of autocratic control by which the leadership not only got its way but did so, at times, by keeping rank-and-file lawmakers—in both parties—from even having enough time to read crucial legislation before voting upon it. During Slaughter’s three weeks with the gavel, she’s been responsible for pushing through the Democrats’ 100-hours agenda of popular bills on such topics as the minimum wage and revising the Medicare drug benefit. So she’s become a lightning rod for Republican complaints that the Democrats are using the same highhanded procedures they once protested.
“You know what the beef is? They lost!” Slaughter exclaims, flashing a New York style that she often keeps shrouded in the courtesies of her native South. “And boy, they had a good thing going. I mean, they lost the election and they lost all their power on K Street. ... They lost a lot of free meals, they lost a lot of junkets, they lost a lot of trips. And you know, we came in and so we’re not going to do that anymore.”
And so Slaughter comes back to ethics, a flashpoint for her. Calling for an inspector general of the House to bolster what has been chronically limp ethics enforcement, she goes boldly where the Democratic leadership has thus far tread softly. Pelosi has called only for a bipartisan three-month study on whether there should be some independent enforcement, and Slaughter makes it clear she won’t move forward on her own.
Her gut tells her, though, that the Ethics Committee—members with the thankless task of judging their colleagues’ alleged transgressions—should be disbanded in favor of a panel of retired federal judges. “I think it’s been proven to me over 20 years that it’s extraordinarily difficult to pass judgment on your peers,” Slaughter says. The most recent proof: the outcome of the Mark Foley scandal, involving the former Florida lawmaker’s sexual advances toward male congressional pages. “What they really concluded was ‘something awful happened, but nobody was responsible for it,’ ” she says of the Foley case.
Now Slaughter is responsible for restoring the idea that lawmakers have a personal responsibility to keep themselves, well, responsible. She doesn’t believe that just tightening rules or even enforcing them more vigorously is the long-term solution. “We will have an ethical Congress when its members are ethical,” she says. “And if you don’t feel strong enough about that obligation to conduct yourself ethically and honestly, there’s not a whole lot we can pass here to make you do it.”
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.