House could send Jones matter to committee for investigation

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones

Washington — U.S. House lawmakers soon could refer to committee the matter of whether to seat Democratic Rep.-elect Brenda Jones while she remains president of Detroit City Council. 

If it goes forward, such a move could extend to a year the time that Michigan's 13th District, which covers parts of Detroit and Wayne County, has gone without representation in Congress.

Jones has not resigned her council seat, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has delayed swearing her in — in part because of concerns that her city post is "incompatible" with being a sitting member of Congress, she said. 

A resolution is being drafted by leadership to potentially send the issue to the House Administration Committee, though the timing is unclear, a Democratic aide said Wednesday. 

"This, to me, is a suppression of the vote of the third-poorest congressional district in the country. My question is: Would this happen if it were the third-richest district in the United States? We're talking about democracy," Jones said. 

"We’re dealing with a district that had gone unrepresented for a year and with a vote that has taken place. I’ve been elected and have opinions."

Democratic former Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit resigned Dec. 5, 2017.

Time is already short for Jones, who is in Washington, D.C., waiting to be sworn into office.

Three weeks ago, she won a special election to temporarily fill the seat of Conyers until January. Only 10 legislative days remain on the House calendar for 2018, though Congress could recess earlier.

Jones said she received three legal opinions that the offices were not incompatible — including an opinion from counsel on the House Ethics Committee. 

Ryan's office says there's no precedent for an individual to serve in the U.S. House while holding a locally elected office. 

While the Constitution doesn't prohibit members from simultaneously holding state or local office, the House has historically taken the position that "high state office is incompatible with congressional membership," as stated in the House Ethics Manual. 

Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong has said the office was awaiting certified election results from Michigan and "still evaluating other complicating factors including her holding two elected positions." Michigan election officials on Monday formally accepted the results that were earlier certified by Wayne County officials. 

The House did not require certified returns for other special-election winners this month and relied on preliminary returns to seat them, including Democrat Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, whom Ryan swore in Tuesday evening. 

"Once the House receives the election certification, this will be a decision for the whole House," Strong said Monday. 

"Any member can object to the member-elect holding two offices, and it can be referred to the House Committee on Administration, which has jurisdiction over such matters."

In election matters, the Administration Committee would typically issue a report and file a resolution concerning the disposition of the case for the full House to consider, according to the Congressional Research Service.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said late Wednesday that Ryan and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California were "working through a process for Brenda Jones to be seated."

"We’re hoping that happens this week," said Lawrence, whose district includes the other half of Detroit. "The voters spoke. Brenda Jones won that seat. The people voted for her, and she should be seated." 

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder called a special election to coincide with the Nov. 6 statewide elections, and critics sued, alleging Snyder had discriminated against black voters. The suit was tossed out

"I just am so disappointed that decision was allowed to stand. That governor made another decision that disenfranchised some of the poorest people in his state," Lawrence said. "It also happens to be one of the highest areas of minorities."

Jones won the special election to finish out Conyers' unexpired term but lost the race to replace him next year to Democratic Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib of Detroit. 

Jones says there should be no conflict with her city position because the council is on recess during the tenure of her House service. Also, she has pledged to accept no pay from Detroit while serving in Congress in compliance with House rules and federal ethics law. 

"Everyone thinks this is unfair including the 13th Congressional District, which is waiting to have a representative," Jones said.

She provided The Detroit News with copy of an unofficial opinion provided by counsel for the House Ethics Committee. It says Jones' position with Detroit City Council "does not appear to be incompatible" with her potential position in the U.S. House. 

The Ethics Committee counsel said Jones' dual office-holding is only compatible given the "very limited time" Jones would be representing Michigan; given that she does not accept compensation from the council (including back pay); and given the council remains in recess during her term in Congress. 

The opinion gave the example of a mayorship that overlapped three days with a House position and was not considered an incompatible office by the Ethics Committee when the House member did not accept pay for the mayoral position and recused from all work on behalf of the city for that time. 

Jones said the Ethics Committee's opinion is considered "unofficial" because she is not a seated member of Congress, but that it's consistent with the legal opinions of her private attorney and the Detroit Corporation Counsel.

The city's legal analysis in August concluded that nothing in federal rules, state law or the city charter expressly prohibited Jones from serving in Congress while keeping her local post.

Jones said Ryan's office is relying instead on the advice of the House parliamentarian for its finding of incompatibility. The parliamentarian relies on House precedent to guide the chamber on questions of legislative procedure.

The last time the House acted on a similar issue was in 1909, when the body vacated the seat of Republican Rep. George L. Lilley of Connecticut, who was sworn in as governor of Connecticut without resigning his House seat.

In Lilley's case, the Judiciary Committee determined serving as governor and congressman to be incompatible and recommended vacating the office and removing Lilley's name from the clerk's rolls. The House later agreed to a resolution to that effect.