Dec 31st, 2004, 12:49 PM
The Party Of Values Strikes Again
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House to Consider Relaxing Its Rules
By Mike Allen and Charles Babington, Washington Post Staff Writers
House Republican leaders are urging members to alter one of the chamber's fundamental ethics rules, which would make it harder for lawmakers to discipline a colleague.
The proposed change would essentially negate a general rule of conduct that the ethics committee has often cited in admonishing lawmakers -- including Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- for bringing discredit on the House even if their behavior was not covered by a specific regulation. Backers of the rule, adopted three decades ago, say it is important because the House's conduct code cannot anticipate every instance of questionable behavior that might reflect poorly on the chamber.
Republicans, returning to the Capitol on Tuesday after increasing their House majority by three seats in the Nov. 2 election, also want to relax a restriction on relatives of lawmakers accepting foreign and domestic trips from groups interested in legislation before the House.
A third proposed rule change would allow either party to stop the House ethics committee from investigating a complaint against a member.
Currently, if the panel, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, is deadlocked on a complaint, the matter automatically goes to an investigative subcommittee after 45 days. The proposed change would drop any complaint that is not backed by a majority vote to move it forward.
Government watchdog groups called the proposals startling and unjustified. If the proposed rules are adopted next week as GOP leaders suggest, they would amount to "the biggest backtracking on House ethics rules that we have seen," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.
The proposals are among the nearly two dozen House rule changes being circulated for comment this week by GOP leaders, in preparation for the 109th Congress. The majority Republican caucus plans to discuss the proposals Monday, with the full House scheduled to vote on them Tuesday.
Several Republicans have criticized the ethics process in the wake of three admonitions this year against DeLay (R-Tex.). A House official familiar with the new proposal on the rule about bringing discredit said the ethics committee could not have acted against DeLay if the change had been in place.
A high-ranking House GOP aide, who could speak only on background because of his office's rules, said many lawmakers support the rule change because they do not want the ethics committee to be able to act against a member by saying "we're not sure what he's done wrong, but we don't like it."
The House Code of Conduct requires members and aides to conduct themselves "in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House." Over the years, the ethics committee has cited the provision in, for example, rebuking DeLay for his dealings with a Kansas-based energy company seeking legislative favors. DeLay's actions did not violate a specific law or House rule, the panel concluded this fall, but they reflected poorly on the House.
Under the proposed change, lawmakers would automatically be in compliance with the Code of Conduct if they met the narrower standard of following "applicable laws, regulations and rules."
A House official familiar with the ethics committee's rules and traditions said the proposed change is "an effort to say a member's conduct does not bring discredit on the House unless it violates a specific rule." The official, who cited committee guidelines in demanding anonymity, said this year's admonitions against DeLay would not have been possible under the proposed change because House rules are not specific and numerous enough to bar every instance of dubious behavior that might occur.
DeLay, responding to the ethics committee's findings in September, said that he "would never knowingly violate the rules of the House" and that he deeply believes that members "must conduct ourselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on this institution."
Earlier this year, House Republicans rewrote a party rule so that DeLay can keep his leadership job even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury. The grand jury has indicted three of his political associates in an investigation of campaign finances related to a House redistricting plan that DeLay helped push through in Texas.
Republican aides said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is also leaning toward removing the ethics committee's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (news, bio, voting record) (R-Colo.), who oversaw the admonishments of DeLay.
Congressional watchdogs sharply criticized the proposed rule change on bringing discredit to the chamber, which they said would weaken the House's already lax system of policing its members' conduct.
"This would be a fundamental undermining of the ethics rules in the House and a direct attempt to vitiate the findings of ethical misconduct against Majority Leader DeLay," Wertheimer said. "If this is done, it would be an extraordinarily destructive action against the ethics rules and would fundamentally undermine the integrity of the House."
Another proposed change, labeled "restore presumption of innocence," provides that the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, will act on a complaint against a member only if both the chairman and the ranking minority member -- or the entire committee, consisting of five Democrats and five Republicans -- agree that an investigation is merited. Currently, the failure to make a decision -- regardless of whether it stems from a partisan stalemate -- automatically sends a complaint to an investigative subcommittee.
Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said the result would be "a climate more conducive to corruption."
"The most important part of a congressional investigation is at the outset -- whether to have one -- so Republicans are trying to make sure they don't have them," Ruskin said.
Wertheimer said the change would mean "one-party veto power" over complaints. "It's a clear backtracking on an already weak process," he said. "It looks like an effort to increase the capacity to bury complaints without even looking at them."
Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the change would put the ethics committee in line with traditional House committees, which block issues that lack a majority vote. Unlike the ethics panel, traditional committees are controlled by the majority party.
The proposal, in a section called "due process for members," also calls for lawmakers accused by the ethics panel to have the chance to be heard before they are summoned for questioning. Under the current rule, according to a summary provided to Republican members, the committee "can take action against a Member without a complaint, notice, or the opportunity to be heard."
The proposed rule on travel would benefit single members, who would be able to take a parent, according to an aide. Currently, a House member's child or spouse may accompany a lawmaker or staff person on a privately funded but officially connected trip at the sponsor's expense. The rule change would expand that to cover any relative.