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Congress may use purse strings to fight property seizure ruling

Associated Press
Published July 1, 2005


WASHINGTON - Lawmakers are trying to blunt a Supreme Court decision that says local governments can seize people's homes to make way for shopping malls and other private development.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Thursday the high court had made "a horrible decision" and he hoped it would cause a backlash.

"The only silver lining to this decision is the possibility that this time the court has finally gone too far and that the American people are ready to reassert their constitutional authority," said DeLay, R-Texas, a critic of recent court decisions.

In a 5-4 ruling last week, the Supreme Court said municipalities have broad power to bulldoze people's homes and put up shopping malls or other private development to generate tax revenue. The decision drew a scathing dissent from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as favoring rich corporations. DeLay agreed.

"Someone could knock on your door, and tell you that the city council has voted to give your house to someone else because they have nicer plans for the property," DeLay said.

The House on Thursday approved by a 231-189 vote a bid by Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., to bar federal transportation funds from being used to make improvements on lands seized via eminent domain for private development.

Legislation in the works also would ban the use of federal funds for any project getting the go-ahead using the Kelo vs. City of New London decision.

"They're going to have to find their own money, instead of coming to Washington," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., mentioned community development block grants as one type of money source that would be banned for projects advancing as a result of the Kelo decision.

The grant program provides money to more than 1,000 municipalities for everything from lead abatement in old buildings to improving water and sewage facilities.

Sensenbrenner and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, are planning a bill that would prevent Washington from claiming eminent domain for economic development and block any state or local government from getting federal funds for projects

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced a similar bill on Monday. The Supreme Court has overturned other congressional attempts to supersede its decisions.

"It is clearly within the power of Congress to limit the use of federal funds," Cornyn said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California says she is opposed to any legislation that would withhold federal dollars "for the enforcement of any decision of the Supreme Court, no matter how opposed I am to that decision."

At least eight states - Florida, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and Washington - already forbid the use of eminent domain for economic development unless it is to eliminate blight. Other states either expressly allow private property to be taken for private economic purposes or have not spoken clearly to the question.

House ethics committee leaders end stalemate

WASHINGTON - Leaders of the House ethics committee broke through a monthslong stalemate over staffing Thursday, making it possible to investigate Majority Leader Tom DeLay and conduct other business.

The evenly divided committee, which investigates member misconduct, has been shut down all year by partisan bickering. The logjam was broken by chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and senior Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

The latest dispute was over the powers allotted to Hastings' chief of staff, Ed Cassidy, who will work for the committee but not be part of the investigative staff. The two leaders swapped proposals for several hours Thursday night before agreeing on Cassidy's role.

With the agreement, the committee can now take advantage of extra funds it was allotted this year to hire additional investigative staff, including a chief counsel who also would serve as staff director.

DeLay has asked the committee to review his travel expenses that were paid for by private organizations. He is seeking to clear his name against allegations that a lobbyist or the lobbyist's clients paid for some of his travel expenses.

The committee, if it grants DeLay's request for a review, could conduct a preliminary inquiry into his travel.

After the review, the committee would have to decide whether to name an investigative subcommittee to conduct a full-scale investigation.

While Democratic leaders have called for an investigation of DeLay, the GOP leader has accused Democrats of trying to stall ethics committee operations to ensure an investigation lasts into 2006 - an election year.

DeLay was admonished on three separate issues last year by the committee, formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.