Destructive ethics changes
On November 17, 2004 House of Representative Republicans changed their party's Conference rules to allow members indicted by state grand juries to remain in a leadership post. The change was made to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) who is currently the subject of a Texas grand jury investigation.
On January 3, 2005 house Republicans passed their proposed 109th Congress rules package which included devastating changes to ethics rules which included two important items.
The creation of a rule that dismisses any complaint the evenly split, bi-partisan Ethics Committee deadlocks on. This measure provides an effective veto for the Majority over any ethics complaint filed. The current language places the item into an automatic investigative subcommittee if agreement cannot be reached in the allotted time frame.
The elimination of the 45-day deadline for action by the Ethics Committee on any complaint before them. This change enables the committee to "bury" politically sensitive ethics complaints indefinitely. This important reform the Republicans dismantled was created in the interest of providing timely resolutions to ethics complaints before the committee.
The response to the Republican majority's proposed ethics changes was harsh, vocal and widespread. Ethics watchdog organizations, Democrats in Congress and even some Republicans were quick to denounce the changes.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a non-partisan, Washington based, ethics watchdog organization went as far as to say that, "This proposed rules change, when combined with the expected appointment of a compliant House Ethics Committee Chairman to replace current Chairman Joel Hefley, will, in essence, shut down the ethics enforcement process in the House for the future."
Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, a progressive, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization, agreed by stating, "If these changes to House rules are adopted, they will turn a dysfunctional ethics system into a virtually non-functioning ethics system."
Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, a conservative, non-partisan public interest group, piled on adding, "In 1994, the Republicans came to power promising a new day for ethics in the House of Representatives. Instead, ethics enforcement has been stymied and is set to be severely weakened. As a conservative committed to honest government, this troubles me. There is nothing conservative about covering up or condoning corruption."
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Rules didn't skirt the issue either when she said, "This package represents a very serious and grave threat to the credibility and integrity of this institution. And sadly, it is being forced upon the Congress and the American people for the benefit and protection of one man, Tom DeLay."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the Democratic Leader of the House Information
Resources said blasted the changes from the House floor saying, "The rule of the House in the Ethics Committee has been that in order to dismiss a case, you must have a majority of the ethics committee. That would be eliminated today. On a partisan basis, there could be no cases that go forward. Either party with half the votes in the committee, evenly split, could stop any complaints from going forward. That simply is not right."
Republican Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) was also a vocal critic stating, "It would be a grave mistake to weaken House ethics rules that have existed since 1968 and I will oppose any rule that does so. Those of us who were here in 1994 remember we gained our Republican Majority in part because we argued that as public servants, we have a responsibility to the American people to maintain the highest standards of conduct. Our existing rules reflect that obligation and should not be changed."
In the face of mounting criticism the Republican Majority gave the public perception they were backing off the proposed changes. Newspaper headlines were abuzz implying the GOP was doing an about-face on their proposed Ethics changes due to the public pummeling they had experienced.
In actuality the Republican Majority removed just one section from their proposed changes. They removed their proposed gutting of a rule created in 1968 that required Members to "...conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect credibility on the House" but keep the equally damaging changes that will effectively cripple House ethics procedures by eliminating the 45 day rule and the dismissing of complaints when the equally divided body is tied.
With slight modifications intact, House Republicans succeed in destroying House
Ethics as we know it with a vote along party lines of 220-195. Following the passage of the Rules Package for the 109th Congress, editorial boards throughout the country attempted to tackle this issue:
The New York Times wrote "A rules change engineered by the leadership means that corruption complaints against lawmakers will automatically expire if the evenly divided ethics committee finds itself in a 5-to-5 party-line standoff. As hobbled as the old system was, a standoff at least meant that the complaint went to a subcommittee for investigation. That produced three warnings for Mr. DeLay last year."
The Washington Post also chimed in by stating that "This change is as unnecessary as it is unwise. It's not as if the ethics committee has been inundated with complaints. House rules bar filings from outside groups; only a member can file a complaint, and the committee ominously warned lawmakers last year that they make such accusations at the risk of being hauled up on ethics charges themselves. Moreover, unlike other House panels, the ethics committee contains equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, so ultimately no action is taken without some bipartisan agreement. Insisting on such agreement before an investigation can even begin, however, is a recipe for inactivity. Which may be precisely why the House leadership cooked it up in the first place."
After more than a week of harsh criticism from Democrats and outside ethics organizations, Republicans in Congress agreed this week to abandon several provisions of the 109th Congress Rules Package. While to many an ethics crisis in the House may appear to have been narrowly avoided, a closer inspection of the remaining changes reveals just as devastating a blow was ultimately delivered to the ethics process in the Rules Package which passed the House.