GOP Relents on Ethics

Move Marks Second Reversal on Rule Changes

Posted April 27, 2005 at 6:54pm

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 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.

While most of the professional staff from the 108th Congress have been rehired, Hastings’ desire to bring his own chief of staff in to run the panel and allow Mollohan to choose a “minority staff director” has drawn an outcry from Democrats, who argue that every staff position should be filled through a bipartisan process.

For their part, some Republicans noted bitterly Wednesday that when Democrats controlled the House the vast majority of the ethics staff were partisan Democratic appointees, and that the whole notion of a nonpartisan staff emerged only after the GOP took power.

Mollohan reiterated his complaint about staff Wednesday but predicted that the issue could be resolved and would not prevent ethics from organizing.

In his letter to Pelosi, Hastert suggested that future changes to the ethics rules could be handled by the panel itself, which could study the issues and make recommendations to the full House.

In response to that idea, Mollohan said a full examination of the rules would be a “very time-consuming process” and restated his contention that such a study could be made “better and more efficiently” by a leadership-appointed bipartisan task force.

With the ethics committee preparing to organize, several lawmakers — including DeLay — said Wednesday that the panel should formulate new rules or at least offer clearer guidance on the issue of privately funded travel, a subject that has sparked a media firestorm in recent weeks.

“I’m asking them to look at these issues, not only as it pertains to me but the entire House,” DeLay said. “What trips can be taken? How can they be taken?”

DeLay said that a complete ban on travel would be a significant mistake.

“The worst thing that would happen to Congress is to be isolated from real people,” DeLay said, adding that it seemed odd that some critics chastised Members for taking both privately funded junkets and government-funded trips.

The decision to reverse the rule change was made by Hastert and endorsed by his fellow leaders at a meeting Tuesday night. Hastert presented his decision to the full Republican Conference on Wednesday morning.

After the Conference, Hastert again defended the substance of the rules changes, describing them as an effort to “create fairness for all Members.”

Without naming DeLay, Hastert suggested that moving forward would be the best possible step for the Majority Leader.

“I think that there’s a Member, especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name,” Hastert said. “Right now we can’t clear his name.”

Hastert also suggested that the media was to blame for the issue having become a distraction.

“The media wants to talk about ethics, and as long as we’re at a stalemate, that’s all that is in the press today, is the ethics stalemate,” Hastert said. “We need to move forward, we need to get this behind us.”

Several Members said that Hastert’s decision appeared to have the support of the vast majority of lawmakers at Wednesday’s Conference meeting. A handful of Members — mostly younger conservatives — stood up and said they’d rather fight than back down, but most Republicans were resigned to the need to scrap the rules and move on.

Though many lawmakers were unhappy at the prospect of having to vote down rules changes they had voted to support just three months ago, few chose to make their grievances public.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a frequent leadership critic who has already called on DeLay to step down as Majority Leader, suggested that the reversals on both the ethics rules and the indictment rule were the result of a lack of “diversity” at the leadership table.

“This is what happens,” Shays said. “Somebody comes up with a stupid idea and everyone just nods their heads.”

Opinions varied widely among Member about whether the organization of the ethics committee would lead to a flurry of complaints and a full-fledged ethics war.

Some Republicans continued to suggest that Democrats would pay the price for their behavior throughout the standoff.

“People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).

But other lawmakers were less sure that Armageddon was imminent, arguing that smart Members in both parties knew the consequences of an ethics war would be disastrous for the institution.

“It’s really important that the adults around here talk to each other and police this,” said a senior Republican lawmaker.