Ethics Panel Fight Leaves Pols Without Guidance

Congressman Tom Feeney wants to correct his trip records if anything about his jaunt to South Korea in 2003 may have violated House rules.

The Florida Republican can't consult the ethics committee (search), however, because a fight between Republicans and Democrats has all but shut down the panel, whose roles include steering lawmakers away from trouble.

"We don't know what to amend or what to file," Feeney said in an interview. "Until you get exonerated people can keep beating the same dead horse. And you can't say, 'I've been cleared of that (charge),' because you haven't."

A standoff over new committee rules — ordered by Republicans after admonishments the panel issued last year to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) — has left the House Committee on Standards and Conduct unable to offer lawmakers specific advice. The 10-member panel itself has to adopt those operating rules, but with all five Democrats opposed to them, Chairman Doc Hastings (search), R-Wash., has been unable to muster a majority.

So members like Feeney, trying to find out how to correct trip records in the face of a possible rule violation, are left without a guide.

Feeney's problem is just one of the issues raised by the virtual absence of an internal watchdog in an institution with a demonstrated need for one. Without rules accepted by both sides, the committee cannot investigate complaints about the chamber's members nor offer specific advice to them. And that raises the question of whether the limbo amounts to a period of impunity for any misbehaving members.

"I don't see any basis to conclude that there is impunity as a matter of law," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University. "On the other hand, it may be the practical reality, at least for the duration of the ethics meltdown."

In practical terms, it means even the best-intentioned members are operating blindly.

"I would compare it to trying to fill out your income tax return without the booklet which explains how to answer the questions," Clark said.

Feeney says he didn't know at the time of his 2003 trip that the entity paying for it, the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, had moved its headquarters overseas, putting the travel in violation of House rules. House members are prohibited from accepting trips paid for by foreign entities.

In a March 10 letter to the panel, Feeney asked:

"I would like to request your guidance on what needs to be done by my office to correct any inaccurate information required by the ethics committee. Thank you in advance."

His appreciation was premature, or at least optimistic. Feeney is still awaiting a response.

The equally divided ethics committee has been paralyzed since January, when Republicans — without Democratic support — passed a rules package that would require cooperation of both parties to proceed with an investigation. Democrats said this was an effort to protect DeLay from further scrutiny. By refusing to adopt the new rules in committee, Democrats have blocked the panel from functioning.

Republicans charge that the Democrats are sustaining the impasse to hold off probes on their own members, such as one pending against Rep. Jim McDermott (search), D-Wash., over his role in revealing the contents of an intercepted telephone call among Republican leaders.

The panel cannot do much beyond answering routine questions about benign issues, such as one from a betrothed House aide who wanted to know whether it broke House rules to accept wedding gifts from guests who were also lobbyists, according to ranking Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

That leaves members without answers to questions about whether taking this trip, accepting that gift or amending a document would obey or break House rules. In the interim, the committee's professional staff is holding seminars on basic ethics rules, but they still cannot answer questions on matters that could result in punitive action against a member, Mollohan said.

"We can only consider non-controversial questions at this time," he said.