House ethics panel lapses at an awkward time

As turmoil surrounding DeLay rises, Republicans face pressure to revisit rule changes that Democrats oppose.

It's Day 112 that the House ethics committee has not functioned, since Republicans unilaterally changed its rules at the start of the 109th Congress - and members are beginning to notice.

Every since its founding in 1967, the ethics panel has been the committee appointment most members were loath to accept. It builds no roads, fixes no tax rate, and means little to a member's home district. Also, it can help make enemies.

But its absence is emerging as an unexpected crisis for House GOP leaders, at a time when they are also trying to stem ethics allegations around majority leader Tom DeLay. "Many Republicans are getting very concerned about how to get this behind us," says Rep. Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado, the panel's former chair.

After the panel rebuked Mr. DeLay three times in the last Congress - a step short of a full investigation or censure - House leaders moved three Republicans and two staff members off the committee and then changed the ethics rules on a party-line vote.

For Democrats, the ethics committee impasse signals that Republicans have become arrogant in power and changed the rules to protect Mr. DeLay. Many Republicans, for their part, say the ethics process has been used to bash their leader unfairly, and that the latest impasse is a partisan bid to deny him a chance to clear his name.

The stalemate began when Democrats on the ethics panel rejected the rules changes and refused to allow the panel to organize. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as it is formally known, is the only House panel where the majority and minority parties are equally represented.

"The ethics committee works in a bipartisan way. If any minority ever gives that up, there should be no ethics committee," Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia, the panel's ranking Democrat, in a telephone interview over the weekend.

Last week, Democrats on the 10-member panel turned down an offer from Chairman Doc Hastings (R) of Washington for an immediate vote to investigate Mr. DeLay in exchange for an agreement to the rules changes.

Instead, Democrats are calling for a vote to overturn the rules and a new bipartisan task force to propose new ones. Only a few Republicans have publicly backed calls for a new vote. But last week, Speaker Dennis Hastert signaled that he is open to such a vote.

The allegations against DeLay include charges that trips were paid for indirectly by lobbyists.

While few House seats are currently considered competitive, there could be a fallout in the polls for Republicans, if charges that they have become arrogant in power stick. "Every Republican running next year has Tom DeLay running as a running mate," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.

"While the paucity of competitive House and Senate seats makes a turnover of control in either body extremely unlikely in 2006, it might easily lead to a loss of seats and put control of the bodies in real doubt in 2008," writes analyst Charlie Cook in his weekly column, "Off to the Races."

Escalation of the ethics wars

Ethics charges were the wedge Republicans used to end 40 years of Democratic dominance in the House in the run-up to the 1994 election.

"The ethics wars in the House have been building for many years. [Former Rep. Newt] Gingrich used ethics against the Democrats in the late 1970s, when he was a freshman, and ever since there has been a constant escalation," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

"When you're in the minority in the House, much more than the Senate, you don't have many opportunities to affect the process. What you find is that very often the only way the minority in the house can have a role is to smash the china," he adds, referring to the impasse on the ethics panel.

Opportunity for consensus

Ironically, there are members on both sides of the aisle who support some of the changes that passed by party-line votes on Jan. 4, when the House adopted its rules for the 109th Congress, especially due-process protections for members. Under the new rules, the committee must notify any members of complaints involving them and allow members a chance to review or contest findings before they are released to the public. Republicans say it's unfair to members to have allegations drag on in the press, tarnishing reputations, without a resolution.

In a reverse of previous rules, failure to act on a complaint within 45 days ends the process, unless the committee votes to extend it up to 90 days. Under previous rules, failure to act after 45 days triggered a formal investigation. The new rule is a formula for letting the clock run down on valid or tough ethics cases, Democrats say. "It is the easiest thing in the world to have a rule that helps you avoid your responsibility, and that's what this one does," says Mollohan.

Another rule change would allow the same lawyer to prep the member facing investigation and all witnesses - a move previously barred to discourage collaboration on testimony. "For us to have to allow that, we might as well not have an ethics committee," Mollohan says.

As part of his offer to break the panel's deadlock last week, Chairman Hastings offered his own "ironclad commitment" to extend the time period from considering whether to move from a preliminary investigation to a full-scale investigation to a minimum of 90 days. He also offered a personal commitment "that while I am chairman of this committee we will never dismiss any complaint without a vote of the full committee."

Democrats say the issue isn't the chairman's goodwill, but bad rules. "If you're sincere about it," asks Mollohan, "why not just change the rules?"

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