GOP May Kill Indictment Rule

Critics Say Move Would Shield DeLay

Posted November 16, 2004 at 6:51pm

Wrapping up a two-day flurry of organizational activities, House Republicans will vote today on a slate of Conference rules changes likely headlined by a proposal to change the rule that requires indicted leaders to step down from their posts.

The proposal, put forward by Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), represents an effort to ensure that Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) would not have to relinquish his leadership position if he is indicted in connection with a Texas investigation into corporate donations to state political campaigns.

Current GOP Conference rules state that a member of the elected leadership who has been indicted on a felony carrying a penalty of at least two years in prison must temporarily step down from the post. The Member may return to the job if found not guilty or if the charges are reduced below a felony or dismissed.

Under Bonilla’s plan, according to a Republican source, leaders would only have to step down if they came under federal indictment. The current investigation in Texas is being conducted by the Travis County district attorney, not federal authorities. The rule could be waived by Republican Conference at any time.

“In this country, the last time I checked, you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Bonilla, adding that his proposal would prevent any “crack pot” local prosecutor from interfering with Congressional leadership.

Asked about the proposal, DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said, “The Majority Leader believes members of the Conference should come to their own conclusions on this issue and that the Conference should work its will without him exerting undue influence one way or the other.”

With no Whip count in hand, Republican leadership aides were hesitant to speculate Tuesday on whether Bonilla’s proposal would pass in today’s vote. They also cautioned at press time that the situation was fluid and that Bonilla could modify or withdraw his proposal before this morning’s vote.

Assuming it does come to a vote, the balloting will be secret. While many GOP lawmakers believe the ongoing investigation in Texas is politically motivated, some may also worry about the potential bad publicity they would receive if they allowed an indicted lawmaker to retain the No. 2 post in the House leadership.

House Democrats didn’t wait for Republicans to actually vote on the proposal before attacking it in strong terms.

“If they make this rules change, Republicans will confirm yet again that they simply do not care if their leaders are ethical,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “If Republicans believe that an indicted Member should be allowed to hold a top leadership position in the House of Representatives, their arrogance is astonishing.”

In response, a Republican leadership aide pointed out that Pelosi has been fined by the Federal Election Commission for operating two political action committees and that she waited to speak out about DeLay until after the point in the year when Republicans could have filed an ethics complaint against her.

“Nancy Pelosi is the only member of the Congressional leadership to have been found guilty by the FEC, and she only got vocal on ethics matters after the window of opportunity to file [against her] was closed,” said the aide. “Now that’s a real profile in courage.”

DeLay has already taken a public relations hit this year, as the ethics committee admonished him twice in October for his behavior on the floor during last year’s Medicare vote, for raising money from a company with an interest in pending legislation and for having his staff contact Federal Aviation Administration during the 2003 Texas redistricting standoff.

Earlier this year, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) discussed with a handful of Members the possibility of lining up a temporary Majority Leader candidate who would be willing to step in to the post if DeLay were forced to give it up. Those discussions never resulted in Hastert settling on a candidate, according to Republican sources.

Republicans first put the rule on indictments into place in August 1993 as they were criticizing then-Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) for his involvement in the House Post Office scandal.

The provision was originally written to only affect chairmen and ranking members, but then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) altered it during the drafting process to apply to members of the elected leadership as well.

While there is no indication that DeLay is on the verge of being charged with any crime, the ongoing investigation in Texas means it is at least within the realm of possibility that he will be indicted.

In September, a Texas grand jury indicted three close DeLay associates — John Colyandro, former head of Texans for a Republican Majority PAC; Jim Ellis, head of Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, DeLay’s federal leadership PAC; and Warren RoBold, a DeLay fundraiser based in Washington, D.C.

The indictments allege that the three men violated Texas’ ban on corporate donations to political campaigns by funneling money into Lone Star State legislative races in 2002.

That cycle ended with Republicans in complete control of the state Legislature, paving the way for the passage of a controversial DeLay-engineered redistricting plan that led to Democrats losing five House seats in 2004.

For months before those indictments, many GOP lawmakers echoed assertions made by DeLay allies that the grand jury investigation, led by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (D), was a politically motivated attack designed to punish DeLay for his success in advancing the Republican cause.

DeLay’s allies also argued that he was never involved in the day-to-day operations of TRMPAC and thus was not responsible even if the group did break Texas laws.

While Earle’s probe focused on groups and political operatives closely tied to DeLay, and a grand jury continues to hear evidence in Travis County, the Majority Leader himself has never been subpoenaed or named as a target in that investigation.

Bonilla’s proposal is not the only potential rules change Members were floating Tuesday.

The Republican Study Committee was working on a proposal to change budget process rules to encourage fiscal discipline. New RSC Chairman Mike Pence’s (Ind.) office declined to comment because the proposal had not been finalized by press time.

The RSC package could include efforts to require open rules on large authorization bills and to limit the leadership’s ability to waive points of order against bills costing more than $100 million.

On the ethics front, Committee on Standards of Official Conduct Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) proposed several changes to the current rules governing Members’ behavior.

One of Hefley’s proposals would give the chairman and ranking member of the ethics committee limited subpoena power during the fact-finding phase of any panel investigation. Another suggestion by Hefley would allow Members to bring one child instead of their spouses on trips paid for by outside groups.

While the Conference will deal with rules changes today, Republican lawmakers also gathered Tuesday morning to re-elect their entire slate of current leaders and to choose members of the Steering Committee.

On the Steering Committee, Texas was given its own seat, joining Florida and California as the only states to get their own position. Rep. Lamar Smith (R), who had been on Steering as a regional representative for Texas and Oklahoma, won the new Texas post.

With Texas winning its own seat, Oklahoma was moved into a region with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Hastert told lawmakers that it was his “intention” to make the Homeland Security Committee a permanent panel. He did not specify whether it would continue to be a select committee or if it would be made permanent.

That distinction is key to the future of Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). If Homeland Security is made permanent, then Cox would have to step down from his chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee, a post that would likely be taken by Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.).

But Cox said in an interview this week if Homeland Security remains a select panel then Conference rules would not require him to give up the Policy gavel and he would remain in both positions.

John Bresnahan and Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.