Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second highest-ranking House Democrat, on Monday called for the ethics committee to investigate whether Republican lawmakers tried to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to vote in favor of the Medicare bill.
Hoyer said the panel has a responsibility to look into Smith’s allegations that in exchange for a yes vote on the bill, GOP lawmakers offered to funnel significant financial support into the campaign of his son, Brad, who is seeking to replace him. Smith, who voted against the Medicare bill, is retiring from Congress.
“What Nick Smith alleges is a crime, the buying of a vote” Hoyer said, later adding: “I think the ethics committee ought to investigate.”
Hoyer said he would not file a complaint with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct himself, rather insisting the panel look into the charges on its own. The equally divided committee can initiate an investigation independently, or any individual Member can request an inquiry.
Ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said he could not comment on whether his panel would examine the allegation that Smith was offered a bribe, though he did say he was troubled by what he had heard.
“The initial reports on it appeared that there might be very serious violations,” said Hefley. “It is serious and it disturbs me — the idea that this might have happened.”
Hefley added, however, that Smith’s subsequent explanations of the situation “indicated that maybe” it wasn’t as serious as it initially appeared. Smith has recently backed off on his initial charges, saying what occurred on the House floor was not technically bribery.
An aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert (D-Ill.) said: “The Speaker talked to Nick Smith about the good policy in this bill,” adding that he had not heard of any Republican Member offering Smith a bribe.
“We are not aware of anything like that and we don’t think it happened,” said the aide.
Beyond Hoyer’s push for the ethics committee to look into the allegations, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered a privileged resolution on the floor in which she said the allegations indicate a violation of United States code prohibiting bribery of public officials.
Pelosi stopped short of calling for an ethics investigation, but called on Hastert “to take such steps as necessary to prevent any further abuse” of the House.
Also, Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and two watchdog groups separately asked the Justice Department to investigate the charges. The department is now looking into the incident. See related story.
Democrats have in the past been reluctant to file complaints directly with the committee for fear it would spark a spate of complaints by Republicans against their own Members. For several years, in fact, there has been an unwritten ethics truce between the two parties.
Hoyer said that while it is easy to raise allegations and the process shouldn’t devolve into a political “tit for tat,” the Smith incident appears to meet the test for an inquiry.
“But I think if our House is going to be respected and we hear of allegations, whether we read them in the press or — which is how Nick Smith got to most of us — they ought to be reviewed by our ethics committee,” he said.