Ethics Committee targeting Homeland Security Committee chair

The House Ethics Committee will probe the actions of Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, for his sudden interest in what looked to be an unrelated field — credit card companies.  Thompson used identity theft as a lever for his committee to issue expensive regulations on the industry.  In response, lobbyists began engaging Thompson … while the credit-card companies began to fill his coffers, as the Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu reports:

At a hearing in late March, the nation’s credit card companies faced the threat of expensive new rules from an unlikely regulator: the House Committee on Homeland Security, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

The committee had never before dealt with credit card issues, but Thompson warned Visa, MasterCard and others that Congress might need to impose tighter security standards costing millions of dollars to protect customers from identity theft.

Behind the scenes, some of Thompson’s staffers sensed a different motive — an attempt to pressure the companies into making political donations to the chairman, according to several former committee staffers.

Now the House ethics committee is investigating the propriety of the committee’s operations, and whether its members’ interactions with companies compromised its work. Within a few weeks of the hearing, Thompson collected $15,000 in donations from the credit card industry and its Washington-based lobbyists, a Washington Post analysis shows. No legislation on card security has been introduced.

Several former committee staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have told The Post that the credit card hearing was one of several committee actions that caused staff concerns because of their consideration of potential donors and contractors friendly to Thompson. The current ethics inquiry was prompted this summer, according to an ethics document obtained by The Post, when a former committee aide alleged she was fired after complaining to her bosses that a lobbyist made improper requests of staff members.

No one doubts that identity theft is a major issue, but jurisdiction for that would be with the Judiciary and Finance committees.  Homeland Security’s jurisdiction includes national security, immigration, and emergency response, not normal legal matters.  Even the corollary between identity fraud and immigration fraud would have more to do with Judiciary, and certainly that issue’s impact on credit-card regulation would be the purview of Finance.

Small wonder Thompson’s staffers wondered what Thompson wanted with this issue.  It smells like a shakedown attempt.  Thompson had no business threatening to impose credit-card regulations in the name of national security.  One also has to wonder how much free time the HSC has under Thompson’s leadership.  Have they completed visa reform before starting on Visa-card reform?  Has Thompson done anything to focus on American border control before trying to control American Express?

This gives us an excellent reminder of why we limit Congressional power in the first place.  It also makes an argument that creating the Department of Homeland Security could be more of a threat to the US in the long run than the threats it purported to address.  Civil libertarians warned at the time that aggregating such a wide variety of agencies under the expansive mission of “homeland security” would encourage abuses of power, but no one to my recollection figured on Congressmen abusing the power to scare up campaign contributions.