This Week

Issue: "Follow the Greenback Road," Jan. 25, 1997

The scarlet letter

Fear that &quotthe people's business" is being ignored amidst the partisan wrangling over ethics charges and countercharges in Washington is not very well-founded. It's getting done, but quietly. Case in point: News coverage of the new Congress's first day, Jan. 7, focused almost exclusively on the political jockeying over whether Newt Gingrich would be reelected Speaker of the House. Largely missed by the news media (WORLD included) were at least two significant measures approved the first day that could revolutionize the way the House does business: (1) the constitutional authority statement and (2) the Truth-in-Testimony rule. The first reform would require House committees to cite &quotthe specific powers granted to Congress by the Constitution" that authorize each piece of legislation they approve. That alone should wipe out most proposed legislation. It won't. But there's no harm in provoking a debate over the constitutional role of government. Reform number two, which also involves House committees, is even more intriguing. It requires witnesses in hearings to disclose whether they have a financial stake in the outcome of legislation. Under the rule, anyone from a nongovernment organization giving testimony must first submit a report detailing how much taxpayer money their groups have received over the past three years--whether in the form of grants or government contracts. It would affect defense contractors and special interests alike. Truth in Testimony is a pet project--dubbed &quotPTL," for privatize the left--of conservative think tanks in Washington. House Republicans, angered by special-interest political campaign spending against them last fall, also were eager to enact the new rule. Eight groups, from the AFL-CIO to the American Association of Retired Persons, received a total of almost $100 million in federal grants in 1994; those groups spent $5.5 million trying to unseat GOP congressmen. The thinking is that once the taxpayers realize that supposedly neutral organizations advocating higher government spending are actually receiving benefits, they will be less likely to be supportive. Judging by the reaction from some of these federally funded groups, the thinking may be right. Nan Aron, leader of a coalition of pro-abortion and liberal legal groups that receive federal funds, complained the rules change is &quotan effort to brand witnesses who receive federal funds with a scarlet 'A' for advocacy." Not quite. Everyone knows witnesses are advocates; otherwise they wouldn't be witnesses. That scarlet &quotA" should instead stand for abyss--an apt warning to members of Congress of where the taxpayers' money is likely to go if they vote for continued spending for these organizations.

Below the belt?

Eavesdropping hobbyists John and Alice Martin recorded the tape heard 'round the beltway. The Florida couple--National Education Association members and staunch Democrats--admitted Jan. 13 they taped a December conference call including Newt Gingrich and other House leaders discussing the political damage control of ethics charges. They intercepted the call using a Radio Shack police scanner--which picked up the cellular phone of conference participant Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was in Florida on vacation. At a press conference put together by their attorney, the Martins provided details that shook official Washington and set in motion a string of contradictory statements and denials, as well as a resignation and an FBI probe. Their press conference came three days after a partial transcript of their tape appeared in The New York Times, along with a story insinuating that in the conference call, Mr. Gingrich was conspiring to break his agreement with the Ethics Committee. The Martins said they first gave the tape recording to Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), their congresswoman. According to their account, Rep. Thurman a day later gave back the tape in a sealed envelope, recommended they turn it over to the Ethics Committee, helped them draft a cover letter to the panel's ranking Democrat, and suggested they would be granted immunity from prosecution. (Making such recordings is a federal felony.) Mr. and Mrs. Martin on Jan. 8 personally delivered the envelope containing the tape to Ethics Committee Democrat Rep. James McDermott. Two days later, the Times story appeared. On the day of the Martins' Jan. 13 press conference, Mr. McDermott turned over the tape to the committee's lead counsel, who refused to accept it and instead sent the tape to the Justice Department's Criminal Division as evidence. The next day, the FBI began a criminal wiretapping probe, and Mr. McDermott angrily resigned the committee's investigation into the Speaker's ethics.It is a felony to divulge to the news media illegally obtained telephone tape recordings. On Jan. 16, the Washington Times reported that an aide to Rep. Thurman denied the Martins' statement that his boss helped draft the letter to Mr. McDermott; he said the congresswoman only helped them set up an office computer to type the letter. The aide also said the issue of the couple's immunity from prosecution was raised only as a possibility, and that Rep. Thurman got the idea from high-level staffers in the office of Minority Whip David Bonior. Mr. Bonior admits he suggested the tape be given to the Ethics Committee, but aides hotly denied ever discussing immunity with Rep. Thurman. On Jan. 17, the blistering report of special counsel James Cole in hand, the Ethics Committee opened public hearings into charges that Speaker Gingrich failed to seek proper legal counsel in financing and distributing a college lecture course he taught, &quotRenewing American Civilization,&quotand that he filed &quotinaccurate, incomplete, unreliable" information with the committee concerning the charges. Congressional sources said Mr. Cole recommended a reprimand by the House and a stiff fine--as reimbursement for extra work required of the committee because of Mr. Gingrich's false information. The evidence will be available to the Justice Department for further investigation.

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