Will the Ethics Committee Investigate Democratic Leadership?

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The House voted this afternoon on whether or not the House Ethics Committee should investigate what Democratic leaders knew of Eric Massa's alleged improprieties, and the results are a bit murky.

The push to investigate Democratic leaders was put forth, fittingly, by the Republican leadership: it was House Minority Leader John Boehner who introduced a bill for the House to call on the ethics panel to investigate what Democratic leaders knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it.

The House did not approve the bill--but it did vote 402 to 1 to refer the bill to the ethics committee, effectively tabling the measure. When a bill gets sent to any other committee, procedure then turns to whether that committee will approve the bill and send it to the floor of the House for a vote. Here, it's a bit different. The ethics committee (officially called the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) operates differently, and under different rules. It doesn't pass legislation.

What today's vote means is this: it will now be entirely up to the ethics committee whether or not to probe Democratic leaders. The House, as a whole, did not make any recommendation one way or another.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said it's likely the committee will follow the bill's advice, pointing to the 402-to-1 vote as an overwhelming vote in favor, essentially, of taking Boehner's advice. (UPDATE: The lone member to vote "no," Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah, says he did so because Boehner's bill was "a distraction at best." For more on Fattah's vote, see his interview with The Atlantic.)

"If they ignore it, stay tuned," Steel said.

After the vote, Boehner had this to say, in an official statement: "The resolution that passed the House with a strong bipartisan majority today is a clear signal that an investigation to examine and answer the very serious questions arising from Democratic Leaders' response to their former colleague's conduct is necessary."

A definitive answer is more complicated to get: members of the ethics committee are barred from discussing anything before the committee, or anything that might come before the committee. The committee itself has no press liaison to discuss anything--because there's nothing to discuss.

The office of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who heads the committee, could not comment on Boehner's bill, or Massa, on the record.

The question Boehner wants answered is whether Democratic leaders knew about Massa's behavior and failed to report it, or tried to cover it up. It has been reported that, upon learning of the allegations from a staffer, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told his staff to tell Massa's staff that the allegations must be reported to the ethics committee within 48 hours--or he would do it himself. The Washington Post reported today that an aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was informed of some of Massa's questionable behavior--though no groping, or advances--in October.

It seems likely that the panel will take up this investigation, though perhaps not overwhelmingly so. But with no one on the panel able to speak about it--and with the House not having offered any explicit guidance--it is difficult to confirm that likelihood.

It's tough for an ethics panel to turn down a request to clear the air, and if Democrats have nothing to hide in this, then an investigation will not hurt them. It will, however, lead to headlines (like this one) about an investigation.

UPDATE: Asked for comment, Hoyer's office provided this statement: "Leader Hoyer voted to refer the resolution, and the bipartisan Ethics Committee will determine the appropriate action

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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