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Inquiry Sought in House Vote on Drug Plan for Medicare
by Carl Hulse
The New York Times

February 02, 2004

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 — A leading House Democrat has called on
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to initiate an ethics investigation into
accusations of bribery during last November's vote on the new
Medicare drug plan,
warning that Democrats will conduct their
own inquiry if the House leader does not act.

In a Jan. 20 letter to the speaker, Representative Steny H. Hoyer
of Maryland, the Democratic whip, said an investigation by the
House ethics committee was needed to protect the reputation
of the House after Representative Nick Smith, Republican of
Michigan, said groups and lawmakers had offered support for
his son's Congressional campaign if Mr. Smith backed the
measure, which passed 220 to 215.

"Until such time as the committee renders its own conclusions
on the matter, the House will operate under a cloud of public
suspicion," Mr. Hoyer wrote in his five-page letter.

Mr. Hoyer said a failure by Mr. Hastert to request an inquiry
would leave "no alternative but for individual members" to seek
one, a move that would shatter an unofficial truce the parties
have observed in recent years after ethics complaints were
wielded as political weapons in the 1990's.

Republican officials said the Hoyer appeal smacked of politics
and suggested Democrats were using the ethics process to
try to score election-year points in their effort to regain the
House majority. A spokesman for Mr. Hastert, Republican of
Illinois, said the speaker did not intend to ask for an
investigation, saying the decision should be left to the ethics
panel, led by Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado.

"If Mr. Hefley and the committee think this is an important
allegation, they will take a look at it, no doubt," said John
Feehery of the speaker's office. He added that it was Mr.
Hastert's hope that the ethics process "remains depoliticized."

Mr. Hefley has said he does not intend to pursue the Smith
allegation because no lawmaker has filed a formal request
for an investigation. Republicans have called the charges
surrounding Mr. Smith overblown.

But Mr. Hoyer, in an interview, said the accusations first
made public by Mr. Smith himself were serious and credible
and transcended any "understanding" the two parties shared
on House ethics matters. Mr. Hoyer said that he agreed with
the view that the ethics process should not be tainted by
politics but that the House could not abandon its responsibility
to police itself.

"Whether you are a lawyer, an accountant or a corporation,
we have found that the failure of institutions to regulate
themselves, to address problems internally, inevitably results
in a loss of respect and of trust and in some cases brings the
intervention of a third party," he said.

Mr. Hoyer's letter is the latest example of growing unrest with
what Democrats see as heavy-handed Republican operation of
the House and a failure to rein in questionable behavior by
some members. House Democrats have said they intend to
make Republican stewardship an issue in this year's campaigns.

The Smith incident arose from the difficulty the Republican
leadership had in winning approval of the Medicare plan in the
early morning of Nov. 22, when Mr. Hastert kept the usual
15-minute voting period open for almost three hours until he
and his lieutenants could round up a majority. Mr. Smith, a
conservative opposed to the drug coverage plan because of
its costs, was approached by lawmakers, including Mr. Hastert,
who tried to persuade him to switch. But he refused.

In a column on his House Web site after the vote, Mr. Smith
said he had been offered "extensive" campaign support and
endorsements for his son, Brad, who is running to succeed
him, as well as threats of retribution against his son if he
did not back the bill. In a radio interview, Mr. Smith put
the figure for campaign aid at $100,000. After an uproar
over his comments, Mr. Smith backtracked and said the
offers of support were general and did not include specific
amounts. He did not name the people he said had pressured

The Justice Department has said it would look into the matter.
But Mr. Hoyer noted in his letter that its jurisdiction could be
limited by Congressional speech and debate protections in
the Constitution, while the House itself has no such restrictions.

Were a Democratic lawmaker to file a complaint, it could lead
to the kind of bitterness that marked the years when Republicans
and Democrats traded ethics charges.

Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, resigned from the House in
1989 over accusations he accepted improper gifts and book
royalties. Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, was fined
$300,000 in 1997 over a politically tinged college course he

Since then, House members have changed the ethics process
to make it harder for outsiders to file complaints, and lawmakers
themselves have shied away from charges.
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