Democrats Slam Pick for Ethics

Posted February 2, 2005 at 6:44pm

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) tapped Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) to head the House ethics committee Wednesday, a decision that was immediately blasted by Democrats and watchdog groups as an attempt to put a chill on the ethics process in the chamber.

The long-expected decision to remove Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman of the ethics committee also leaves many questions unanswered about what the panel will do next with several hot-button investigations.

Although Hastert claimed he was bound by House rules limiting service on the ethics panel to four terms, both Hefley and top House Democrats have pointed out that the Speaker could have sought a waiver for Hefley to serve another term as ethics chairman. Democrats, in particular, claimed Hefley’s removal was in retaliation for his handling of two ethics cases last year involving House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and the subsequent decision by the ethics committee to publicly admonish the powerful Texas Republican in both instances.

“By ousting Mr. Hefley as Chairman of the Ethics Committee and replacing him with a party loyalist, the Republican leadership is sending a chilling message to Members who value upholding the highest ethical standard over partisan loyalty,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “It is further evidence that there is a purge underway of any Republican who does not precisely toe the party line.”

Hefley’s replacement may not be the only change in line for the ethics panel. According to GOP sources, the Republican leadership may also seek the ouster of John Vargo, the panel’s staff director.

Neither Vargo nor other ethics committee sources would comment on potential staff changes at the panel.

Vargo has been criticized within GOP circles for the ethics committee’s handling of investigations of DeLay and then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) during the 108th Congress. DeLay and his allies believe that by criticizing the Majority Leader, the ethics committee essentially created new, unworkable standards for Members’ involvement in fundraising and legislative dealmaking. They hold both Hefley and Vargo responsible for that situation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vargo replaced,” said a senior House GOP aide. “He’s to blame for this mess, too. He’s the top professional staffer on the committee, and they were out of control last year.”

The ethics committee has at least four investigations under way, including “informal” probes of allegations against Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.). In addition, a special investigative subcommittee chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) has been looking into an ethics complaint filed against Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) last year by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio).

While all four of these investigations are expected to continue under Hastings’ watch, the Washington Republican’s ascension to chairman is likely to have a major impact on the cases.

Although Hastings has won praise from Democrats for going along with the decisions to admonish DeLay in 2004, they are privately worried that he will now move to block the committee from taking any action against his GOP colleagues, despite his public pledges to the contrary.

Hastert “put Hastings in there for one reason, and that’s to block the ethics committee from doing anything,” said a high-ranking Democratic staffer. “It’s the end of the ethics committee as an independent entity within the House.”

House Democrats and ethics watchdogs see Hefley’s replacement on the ethics panel as part of a broader effort by the GOP leadership to tighten its control on all centers of power in the House, especially committee chairmen, in order to stifle any dissent within the Republican Conference.

The critics cite the recent ouster of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the removal of Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) as vice chairman of the Budget Committee as further proof of this campaign. Both lawmakers, like Hefley, have bucked their party leadership in the past and have angered senior Republicans in the process.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Hastings is now under an obligation to prove that he is not simply a partisan loyalist who will use his position on the ethics panel to rebuff attempts to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Republican lawmakers.

Hefley’s removal “appears to be the latest example of Republicans Leaders’ determination to stifle accountability and high ethical standards that could threaten their power,” Hoyer said in a statement. “I would hope that Rep. Hastings would, as Rep. Hefley did before him, bring independence and objectivity to his new duties. It is imperative that he put aside the partisanship that he pursued on the Rules Committee.”

Hastings is in line to take over the Rules Committee in the next Congress, and some GOP insiders speculate that he only agreed to take over the ethics committee for two years in order to win Hastert’s backing for the Rules gavel in 2007.

Although he had been expecting his own ouster for several weeks, Hefley tried to play down that impression in a statement released Wednesday. He also vowed to seek a reversal to recently adopted House rules that could make it harder to initiate ethics probes.

“Being the chairman of this committee is an enormous responsibility, and truth be told, it will be somewhat of a relief to be free of that load,” Hefley said in his statement. The Colorado Republican also offered praise for Hastings, calling him “an excellent choice for chairman.”

But Hefley added that he was “still troubled” by the recent changes to the ethics rules and suggested that his own leadership acted in a partisan manner in pushing through the rules package without consulting either Democrats or the ethics committee itself.

“As I have said previously, the ethics process in the House must be bipartisan and shouldn’t be enforced by party-line votes, and I plan to ask the House to revisit the recent changes,” Hefley said.

Hefley remains a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, where he chairs the readiness subcommittee. But Hefley was passed over by his own leadership for the full Resources Committee gavel back in 2002, and some GOP insiders see that as a source of bad blood between the Colorado Republican and his party leadership.

Government watchdog groups, as expected, also slammed Hastert, suggesting the Speaker was acting to install Hastings at the ethics committee in order to protect his own party’s hold on power.

“Joel Hefley had a record of being weak on corruption. But it is a sign of how low the House has sunk that even he is too tough for the House GOP,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. “They want a climate in the House where corruption is neither investigated nor punished.”

Common Cause President Chellie Pingree added: “Now it appears Congressman Hefley’s leadership is being tossed aside because House leaders are more interested in protecting their own than being accountable to the citizens they serve.”

Hastert and his top aides have rejected those charges, saying that Hefley was unable to serve another term as ethics chairman under House rules, a position backed up by the House Parliamentarian’s office, which itself relied on precedents set at the Budget and Intelligence committees. But Hastert could have sought a waiver from the House for another term for Hefley, akin to the waiver recently granted by the Speaker to Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) so that he could serve another term as chairman of the Rules Committee.

Hastert’s reliance on the Parliamentarian’s office also carried no weight with the watchdog groups, who view Hefley’s removal as another bare-knuckled partisan maneuver by the GOP leadership.

“It is extremely unfortunate that House Speaker Dennis Hastert has punished former House Ethics Committee Chairman Hefley for simply doing his job and enforcing the ethics rules against House Members, such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer in a statement. “Speaker Hastert has seriously damaged the credibility of the House as an institution and his own credibility as the Leader of the House by removing Representative Hefley as Ethics Committee Chairman.”