WASHINGTON – It was a one-sentence caption buried deep among the links and photos on Rep. Elijah Cummings’ congressional web site.
Still, House ethics rules dictated that the Baltimore Democrat delete the phrase “No. 1” from the description of the Big Phat Morning Show — the group Cummings posed with — so it would not appear that he was endorsing the Baltimore radio program.
Incidents like that are just the latest, high-tech example of an age-old dilemma on Capitol Hill — which activities are appropriate for congressmen and their staffs navigating that line between campaign duties and congressional work.
At least two Maryland incumbents had links from their campaign web sites to the tax-funded web sites for their congressional offices, which is a violation of House ethics rules.
During the campaign season, Capital News Service reporters often found staffers in Maryland delegation offices responding to phone messages that were left at campaign offices, and press aides doing both Hill and campaign work — activities that could violate House rules under some circumstances.
“[The rules] are very confusing, very confusing,” said Del Stewart, a spokesman for Cummings. “There’s lots of gray areas.”
Stewart said that while many Hill staffers break the rules accidentally, “there are people who break the rules knowingly.”
Whether accidental or intentional, those violations cost taxpayers their “sweat, blood and tears,” said Gary Ruskin, the director of the Congressional Accountability Project.
“They’re defrauding the taxpayers of fair and honest employees,” Ruskin said. “We pay money for their salaries, and they do campaign work.”
Part of the problem, he adds, is that the “ethics committee does not do a good job of explaining the rules.”
Officials from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which handles ethics issues for the House, declined to comment Friday on the question of campaign and congressional overlap.
But the committee on March 2 circulated a memo that outlined “do’s and don’ts” for congressional and campaign offices, including a section on the appropriate use of web sites by members of Congress. The memo states “that (1) a Member’s campaign Web site may not include a link to the congressional office site, and (2) the congressional office site may not be advertised on the Member’s campaign Web site or on materials issued by the Member’s campaign.”
That came as a surprise to aides to two Maryland incumbents, Reps. Bob Ehrlich, R-Timonium, and Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, who have links from their campaign to their Hill web sites.
When informed of the rule, workers for both campaigns said they knew that links from the congressional web site to the campaign site were prohibited, but that they did not know the rule worked the other way as well.
“Some. . .clarification would be better for people on campaign operations,” said Paul Schurick, Ehrlich’s campaign director. He noted that House rules allow campaign web pages to link to the general House of Representatives site, but not directly to the individual member’s site, a policy he criticized as “contradictory.”
Schurick said the campaign would remove the link to Ehrlich’s Hill site as soon as possible.
Morella’s campaign will also remove the link to the congressional site, said campaign manager P.J. Hogan, who added that he did not believe any penalties would be levied against Morella or the campaign.
The Democrat running against Morella, in one of the most-heated congressional races in the state, will not file a complaint over the apparent violation of House rules. But campaign aides to Democrat Terry Lierman said the incident points up the built-in advantages incumbents enjoy.
“It’s a tool of incumbency to have a web site linked to the House,” said Derek Walker, Lierman’s campaign manager. He said it “blurs the line between official and non-official activities.”
But some Hill staffers said that line is not all that difficult to walk.
“I don’t think they’re so cloudy,” said Sallie Taylor, a spokeswoman for Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick.
“The most difficult thing is when people walk into our district office looking for signs and bumper stickers. We tell them that we can’t give them (campaign items) away and people actually get mad,” Taylor said.