What Does Rep. Collins’ Exit Say About the Speaker’s Power to Police Member Behavior?

Rep. Collins was arrested for insider trading every news outlet on earth reported, but that’s not the most interesting part. Immediately after his arrest, Speaker Ryan released a statement that said, in passive voice, “Until this matter is settled, Rep. Collins will not be serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.” Multiple news outlets described what happened as Ryan stripping Collins of his committee membership. At least in a technical sense, that’s not possible.

As CRS has explained, the Speaker can remove members of select committees and conference committees at any time, and internal party rules require an indicted chairman, ranking member, or member of leadership to temporarily step aside. By way of example, Speaker Ryan could remove Devin Nunes from the House Intelligence committee at any time for any reason — HPSCI is a select committee.

By contrast, the Energy & Commerce committee is a standing committee. Ryan didn’t remove Collins, but rather, Collins sent a letter offering his resignation — described as a “temporary removal” — which was unanimously agreed to by the House in a pro forma session Friday morning, as this brief C-Span clip shows. How much arm twisting happened behind the scenes will be left as an exercise to the reader. (CRS says its an open question whether an indicted-but-not-convicted member could be required to suspend participation in a committee.)

Members might step down under other circumstances, but it requires more than a statement by the Speaker. For example, Rep. Conyers sent a letter to Democratic leadership stepping down as ranking member of the Judiciary committee; Rep. Pelosi described it as Conyers agreeing to step down. There’s no doubt he was under enormous political pressure to do so.

Removal of committee members is a significant point of contention concerning the Speaker’s perceived power. Five years ago, then-Speaker Boehner stripped four Republicans of key committee assignments because they disagreed with him on policy grounds and voted against leadership positions; this eventually spiraled into a rebellion several years later aimed at forcing Boehner out. Boehner removed the representatives via the party steering committee nomination process, which declined at the start of the 113th Congress to re-nominate them to the committees on which they had previously served.

Incidentally, on Saturday Rep. Collins said he would “suspend his campaign for reelection; perhaps it’s too late to remove his name from the ballot? Regardless, this limits some of the leverage congressional leadership might have over him. The next congressional action he has to look forward to is activity by the House Ethics Committee, which, in the next 30 days, must either vote to start an inquiry into Collins or report to the House why it has not done so, in accordance with committee rule 18(e)(2). Some news reports say Ryan reported Collins to the Ethics committee, but that could be a misreading of the aforementioned statement by Ryan.

Collins is in little danger from his House colleagues, given the glacial pace of the Ethics committee’s activities, the late date, and committee practice of dropping investigations into members once members leave office. Collins is doing his staff no favors, however, as they likely will be both brought before the Ethics committee and have to retain counsel to aid them during its proceedings. Unlike Rep. Collins, staff don’t have $1.3 million of campaign committee and leadership PAC funds available to pay their legal fees or help cushion any financial blows, causing them to incur considerable debt just so Collins can keep his paycheck to the end of the year, at which point the congressional inquiry will evaporate. Were he to resign, the office would be declared “vacant” and run by the Clerk, likely affording the staff time to find new jobs.

This could metastasize for Republicans. The New York Times reported that three other members of the health subcommittee on which Collins served also invested in the company in which he is accused of engaging in insider trading. Surely there will be a flurry of news reports on members who serve on the board of companies in which they invest, or members who invest in companies overseen by a committee on which they serve.

What’s next? Fingers will be pointed at members of both parties. A new ban on serving on corporate boards will be floated. Some might even harken back to the effort by some congressional Republicans at the start of this Congress to dismantle the Office of Congressional Ethics and draw a connection between the two. (Will people remember that a former congressional Democrat who lead efforts to undermine OCE now runs the Federal Housing Finance Agency and is under investigation for sexual harassment?)

A few old timers might even say this reminds them of when Democrats retook the House in 2006 on the heels of an unpopular president, the Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the Foley page harassment scandal. It was from those events that the Office of Congressional Ethics was created. Perhaps some of the proposals that didn’t make it into the package at the time, such as giving the OCE subpoena authority, will be revived.

Unless members are required set up blind trusts or divest investments except for index funds, all this will likely reoccur, although a stronger OCE and better ethics rules could be helpful. For what it’s worth, I’d be glad to trade a pay bump for members in return for helping to remove these ethical conflicts, but I suspect that the former is unpopular with the American people and the latter is unpopular with members. In other words, a win-win.

And while Collins is a terrible poster child for member autonomy, the Speaker’s effort to distance the party from his apparent bad behavior — and the mis-reports that Ryan pushed Collins off the committee — may strengthen the incentive for members of Congress who disagree with their leadership on policy issues to further limit the Speaker’s ability to punish them for disagreements on policy matters. Adding additional rules to the House on when members must resign from committees would have the effect of decentralizing that decision-making to the party or the full chamber.

As a final aside, and if you’re looking for something to occupy your time during recess, here’s a pirated video of the 60 Minutes report that prompted Congress in 2012 to pass the anti-insider trading STOCK Act. The legislation, which incidentally is the only bill signing I ever have attended and was intended to reduce the likelihood of insider trading through a mandated disclosure regime, was massively-scaled back one year later via a legislative sneak attack intended to avoid public and congressional scrutiny of the rollback.

Written by Daniel Schuman