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CongressLine - Mr. Speaker

By Carol M. Morrissey, Published on February 7, 2006

Carol M. Morrissey has been the Legislative Specialist for the Washington, D. C. office of Chicago's Sidley & Austin for 11 years. She is a lawyer and legislative expert who has also authored a Congressional update column for the last 4 years.


On January 21, the House of Representatives voted 395-28 to reprimand and fine Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, an action unprecedented in the 208 year history of the House (see http://www.c-span.org for the roll call vote on sanctions). Rep Nancy Johnson (R-CT), the chair of the Ethics Committee, announced that the sanctions were being levied for bringing "discredit" upon the Institution of the House of Representatives, for not obtaining the necessary legal advice on the tax issues involved and for providing information to the Ethics Committee without first ascertaining that it was "accurate in every respect."


The Hearing

The above penalty was finalized by a 7 to 1 vote after the almost 6 hour hearing the Ethics Committee held on January 17. At the hearing, the special counsel to the Committee, James M. Cole, presented the findings of his year long investigation and Rep. Gingrich's attorneys were given the opportunity to defend their client against any and all charges. (The text of the report can be found at http://www.house.gov/demcaucus/report.htm and at http://www.c-span.org) Mr. Cole contended (and the Committee originally agreed to the former) that Mr. Gingrich knew or should have known that the information he submitted to the Committee was misleading and that he violated tax law by using a tax-exempt organization (GOPAC) to engage in political activities.

The attorneys for Mr. Gingrich, J. Randolph Evans and Ed Bethune (a former Representative), claimed that the actions of many tax-exempt organizations are tainted with political overtones, naming the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood as prime examples. Additionally, the misleading documents which had been submitted to the Committee were prepared by Mr. Gingrich's former attorney, Jan Baran. Although the documents were approved and signed by Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Baran is responsible for the inaccuracies they contain. His attorneys also pointed out that not only did the Speaker admit his guilt back in December to having provided inaccurate information to the Committee, (see article at http://www.wbc.net/news/stories/hl_newt12-23-96.htm) but he apologized on January 7 (after being re-elected to the position of the Speaker of the House) to the American public and the Members for his actions.


The Bargain

The Committee was eventually swayed by the fact that Mr. Gingrich recognized the seriousness of the charges and that he had earlier admitted his guilt as to the misleading documents. Therefore, in what amounted to a plea bargain, the charge against Mr. Gingrich was altered to eliminate the element of intent. This placed the Committee on much firmer ground concerning House Rule 43, which states that, "a Member .....shall conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives." (see GPO Access for Jefferson's Manual, which contains the text of the House Rules) Therefore, according to the Committee, Speaker Gingrich did bring discredit to the House of Representatives, but he did not do so deliberately. The Committee did not make a decision concerning whether a tax law violation took place when GOPAC was used to finance a college course and town meetings with a partisan political message, but the appropriate information has been handed over to the Internal Revenue Service for investigation.


Status Quo

The Committee invested nearly two years into ethics complaints against Newt Gingrich (the first ethics complaint involving GOPAC was filed in June of 1994 by Bob Terrell, a Republican primary challenger). Mr. Cole states in his report that GOPAC, the televised college course and the televised town meetings were instrumental in fueling the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, in effect, in changing the course of history. There is no doubt that American politics has been irrevocably altered by the November 1994 election, or as some would say, "realigned" (see the Charles Cook commentary in the Jan. 22, 1997 issue of Roll Call, "Politics as Unusual: Realignment Tips Balance of Power"). However, power gained is not so willingly relinquished and therefore the status quo remains. (Note: the audio of the Ethics Investigations News Conferences can be found at http://www.c-span.org/ethics.htm)