Mollohan Seeks to Reverse Ethics Changes

Posted March 2, 2005 at 10:53am

Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the House ethics committee, demanded Tuesday night that the House GOP leadership restore ethics provisions it altered on the first day of the 109th Congress.

The most high-profile of those ethics changes, which Mollohan called the “Automatic Dismissal Rule” in a floor speech late Tuesday night, requires the ethics committee to dismiss a complaint unless a majority of the bipartisan panel votes to accept it an little as 45 days, with that period not to exceed 90 days. Under the old rules, if the ethics committee had not acted on the complaint within 90 days, an investigation was undertaken automatically.

Mollohan also criticized two other rule changes pushed through by Republicans. The first is the so-called “due process” privilege that allows Members to ask for an adjudicatory subcommittee in order to weigh any possible punishment against that lawmaker following the completion of an investigation. The other covers whether lawyers with matters before the ethics committee can represent more than one client.

In order to reverse those changes, Mollohan introduced a resolution that would require the House to return to the ethics rules used in the 108th Congress.

Mollohan’s resolution will be referred to the House Rules Committee for consideration. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House ethics committee, actually oversees the subcommittee on Rules that would handle Mollohan’s resolution.

“There cannot be a credible ethics process in the House of Representatives unless the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is able to consider complaints against Members and staff in a thorough, efficient, and nonpartisan manner,” Mollohan said in floor speech late Tuesday night. “I am concerned that those provisions of the rules package, if allowed to stand, will seriously undermine the committee’s ability to perform this critical responsibility.”

Mollohan said he was particularly concerned about the dismissal rule, which he branded “a radical change in the rules governing the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct’s consideration of complaints.”

Mollohan added: “Of course, this rule change will have its greatest impact on the controversial high-profile complaints that come before the committee, but it is in the handling of complaints of that kind that the committee’s credibility is most at stake. In short, while the long-term interests of the House require that committee consideration of all complaints in a reasoned, nonpartisan manner be made, the effect of the Automatic Dismissal Rule will be instead to promote partisanship and deadlock within the committee.”

Mollohan’s decision to go the floor to attack the Republican changes to the ethics rules was highly unusual, and both Democratic and GOP insiders are unsure what it will mean for his dealings with Hastings and for the operation of the ethics committee as a whole.

Mollohan enjoyed a good relationship with Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the former chairman of the panel. Hefley was replaced by Hastings several weeks ago. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) moved to replace Hefley despite protests from the Colorado Republican, several other GOP lawmakers, Democrats and ethics watchdog groups.

Hastings then sacked John Vargo, the staff director for the ethics committee, and Paul Lewis, a panel counsel, bringing further complaints from Democrats.