House Ethics Rules Changes Spark Furor

Faced with grumbling lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, House Republican leaders on Tuesday avoided a more serious partisan brawl on the first day of the 109th Congress and helped pass new House ethics rules that are less controversial than ones proposed earlier in the week.

The new ethics standards are part of a broader House rules package that passed the House 220-195 on Tuesday evening.

But the change of heart isn't enough for critics who say the House-approved changes to the ethics laws are leading the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee (search), otherwise known as the ethics committee, into irrelevance and oblivion.

"They hardly deserve our congratulations," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Rules Committee, who spoke on the floor of the House Tuesday, calling the initial proposals "egregious" and charging that the package passed on Tuesday still guts the ethics panel of any future authority.

"They are admitting they are so ethically challenged they cannot conform to the rules they previously adopted for themselves," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "We should be strengthening the rules of the House, not weakening them."

After a meeting Monday night, Republican leaders decided not to push forward with changes to the committee rules that would have raised the threshold of what could be considered wrongdoing by a member and therefore subject to an ethics investigation — changes that critics said would make it easier for members to get away with bad behavior.

Also on Monday, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, proposed the revocation of a party rule passed by Republicans weeks ago that would have protected him from losing his leadership position if he were to be indicted in an ongoing criminal probe of his political action committee in Texas.

Spokesmen for Rep. DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the proposed rule changes were becoming a distraction, and the leadership did not want to give Democrats an issue to gnaw on at the start of the new Congress.

"Our focus as we move forward, is going to be our agenda, our ideas, and as much as Democrats would love to manufacture gridlock and change the subject, we're going to proceed with our agenda undeterred and undistracted," DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella told on Tuesday.

However, a controversial new provision that would kill any investigation if not approved by the majority of the ethics panel within 45 days remained in the package passed on Tuesday. The previous rule allowed an investigation to go forward through a subcommittee after 45 days of inaction by the full panel.

Supporters of the new rule say it keeps politically driven investigations against members from going forward, but critics say the chairman of the committee can now stonewall any future investigation he or she does not want to go forward.

Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefley (search), R-Colo., whose term expired in December and has been seen by some as a victim of GOP retaliation for leading three official admonishments against DeLay last fall, said Tuesday that while he has some problems with the 45-day rule and other tweaking of the standards, he supported the new package.

"I am going to support this rules package because of the actions taken last evening, where we reconsidered some of the suggestions that had been made," he said on the House floor. "I think we have a package now we can live with."

Supporters of the package said it includes reforms to improve due process and reduce partisanship.

"The provisions included in this package will in fact maintain the integrity of this institution," said Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (search), R-Calif.

Democrats nonetheless said Republicans were altering the rules to protect their own. Critics charged that the GOP leadership was circling the wagons around DeLay, who has been admonished by the ethics committee and still faces heat in an ongoing Texas grand jury probe to his Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (search).

The ethics committee admonished DeLay in October for what it said was improperly offering to help Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., campaign for his son in his congressional primary in return for a vote in favor of the Medicare Reform Act (search).

DeLay was also chastised by the panel for encouraging the appearance of undue influence of campaign contributors Westar Energy, Inc. (search) on energy legislation, and for using the Federal Aviation Administration (search) to track down the plane of a Democratic state lawmaker who fled Texas with other Democrats during the 2003 redistricting dispute.

Reports in December indicating that chairman Hefley was on the outs with Hastert were read as retaliation for these admonishments — a charge that Hastert's office denies.

Hastert's aides have stressed that Hefley's time is up, according to House rules. Hefley has been a member of the committee since 1997 and chairman since 2001. House rules say he cannot serve more than four consecutive Congresses on the panel.

"DeLay has nothing to do with it," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.

According to an aide close to the ethics committee, Hefley is willing to continue his service as chair if the Speaker were to grant him a waiver. His supporters compare this to the waiver granted to Dreier in December to continue as chairman of the House Rules Committee after his six-year term expired at the end of the last Congress.

One House leadership aide who did not want to be identified chided Democrats who want a waiver from the rules when it pleased them. "On one hand, they let the process work, on the other they say modify the process so we can get what we want," he said.

Larry Sabato, political science professor and director of the Center for Politics (search) at the University of Virginia, said it is no surprise that the party in power wants to cut the legs out from under the ethics committee.

"It's nothing but trouble to them — they see it in two ways," said Sabato. "It's an instrument for their enemies to use against them and secondly, it's an instrument of many outside groups, that in the view of the leadership, are increasing the cynicism of Congress."

While critics point to the tone of high standards affected by the Republicans when they were the minority party gunning for power in the mid-1990s, Sabato said the GOP's instinct to protect its own is no surprise.

"Where you stand in Washington is where you sit. If you are in power, things are very different than when you are in the opposition. Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics," he said.