After withstanding three months of Democratic complaints and a rising tide of negative publicity, House Republicans grudgingly reversed course Wednesday and scrapped a series of controversial new ethics rules.
The House voted Wednesday evening to strike the changes made in January and revert to the ethics regulations that were in place in the 108th Congress. The move marked the second time this year — the first being January’s reversal of a Conference rule change regarding indicted party leaders — that Republicans have backed down in the face of scrutiny and scuttled new rules governing the conduct of Members.
The changes passed on an overwhelming tk-to-tk vote.
The House adopted three key changes in January that Democrats have strongly opposed: a rule requiring complaints to be dismissed after 45 days if a majority of the committee has not voted to start an investigation, a rule that could allow every Member and witness involved in a case to be represented by the same counsel and a rule giving Members mentioned in forthcoming ethics committee documents the opportunity to review and challenge those documents before they are published.
Wednesday’s vote clears the way for the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to organize and begin conducting panel business, presumably including an examination of the activities of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
DeLay reiterated Wednesday that he was eager to make his case before the ethics panel.
“The House needs a functioning ethics committee and it’s the Republicans who are trying to make that happen,” DeLay said at his weekly press briefing. “I look forward to presenting the committee with the facts once it’s up and running.”
DeLay said his staff had spent the past several weeks gathering documents covering his activities over the past decade in preparation for handing the whole file over to the ethics committee.
As part of a compromise offer last week that was rejected by Democrats, ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said he would push to immediately empanel an investigative subcommittee to probe DeLay.
Now, however, Republicans say that they expect the full ethics committee to go through regular order before deciding whether to create an investigative panel. Ethics ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) made a similar statement Wednesday.
In a letter to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) reiterated his defense of January’s rules changes and questioned the motivations of both Pelosi and Mollohan.
“Since sincere and repeated offers to address the concerns raised by you and Mr. Mollohan have been rebuffed, I propose that the House return to the ethics rules under which we operated in the last Congress, leaving the unfairness inherent in the old system in place,” Hastert wrote.
Mollohan strongly rejected the notion that the old rules were unfair, calling Hastert’s choice of words “unfortunate” and pointing out that the ethics panel dealt with all its cases in the last Congress “expeditiously” and by unanimous vote.
While Pelosi took the opportunity Wednesday to reiterate her criticism of the GOP for changing the rules in the first place, Mollohan was more upbeat about the new developments.
“I do think it’s a very happy day for the Congress,” Mollohan said.
The forecast is not completely clear, however, as Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over the issue of staffing the ethics panel.
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