TCS Earmark Investigation: On the Road to Nowhere?

         Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) has written a letter to the House Ethics Committee, requesting an investigation of a $10 million earmark for the Coconut Road project in Lee County, Florida.  As explained in their letter, the earmark was included in the 2005 Transportation Bill, but the language that passed the House and Senate merely stated that the money was for “Widening and Improvements for I-75 in Collier and Lee County.”  Between the time that the conference report was approved and the time that the bill was sent to the President, the earmark language was changed to “Coconut Rd. Interchange I-75/Lee County.” The letter references media reports that the language was changed by the Enrolling Clerk at the instruction of staff for then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young.  It also suggests that the language change benefited Florida real estate developers who hosted a fundraiser for Young earlier in 2005, including one who owned 4,000 acres adjacent to Coconut Road.

            This request potentially raises two separate issues.  The first is how the earmark language came to be changed (including when the change was made, by whom, who authorized or directed it, and who was aware of it) and whether the change violated the rules and/or norms of the House.  The second is whether the earmark itself was motivated by improper favoritism or outright corruption.  Formally, the TCP letter only requests an investigation of the first issue, although its letter implicitly raises the second as well.

I question whether the first issue is best addressed by the House Ethics Committee. Certainly there is a strong argument that the Committee’s investigative jurisdiction would extend to this issue, since the House’s Code of Official Conduct (over which the Committee has jurisdiction) mandates that Members, officers and employees adhere to the “letter and spirit” of the House Rules and, as TCS notes, the rules as interpreted by House precedent appear to forbid any change to the language, however unimportant, in the text of a bill to which the House has agreed. Moreover, the Committee’s jurisdiction could also be founded on the broad requirement that Members, officers and employees conduct themselves in a manner which reflects creditably on the House.

Nonetheless, it is at least unusual, if not unheard of, for the Ethics Committee to investigate alleged violations of parliamentary rules, practice or precedent. For one thing interpreting such rules, practices or precedent might encroach upon the jurisdiction of others, such as the Speaker, the Rules Committee or the Parliamentarian. Thus, for example, when the Ethics Committee investigated the circumstances surrounding attempts to influence the vote of former Representative Nick Smith on the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, it confined its investigation to allegations of bribery and improper influence, and did not attempt to investigate the parliamentary device of the Chair holding the vote open beyond the normal time in order to achieve a particular result (although the Investigative Subcommittee did express some disapproval of the tactic in a footnote).

Similarly, when questions were raised in this Congress about whether a vote on the 2008 Agriculture Appropriations Bill had been properly conducted, the matter was not referred to the Ethics Committee. Instead, the House Leadership established a special investigative panel to look into the matter. This precedent, which is specifically cited in the TCS letter, would appear to provide a good model for dealing with the first issue raised by the letter. Indeed, serious consideration should be given to broadening the mandate of the special panel to encompass the Coconut Road issue.

As a practical matter, it seems unlikely that the Ethics Committee can or will act upon the TCS letter. As pointed out by Roll Call, House Rules do not permit the Committee to act upon complaints from outside parties such as TCS. Technically, the Committee could choose to act on its own initiative, but it seems doubtful that it will do so, particularly in light of the many other matters that are overloading the Committee. In addition, if the Committee were to investigate the second issue raised by the TCS letter, ie, the suggestion of improper favoritism or corruption, it might have to investigate dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other earmarks with similar indicia of impropriety.

The question of how the Coconut Road earmark language was changed is a serious issue, which should be the subject of a thorough review and a public report. It is doubtful, however, that the Ethics Committee will be the forum to address this issue.