House Republicans changed their Conference rules Wednesday to allow indicted party leaders and committee chairmen an opportunity to remain in their posts, even as Democrats moved to toughen their own internal guidelines on the subject.
The GOP rule change was devised as a way to prevent Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from losing his leadership post if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury in connection with an investigation into corporate donations to state political campaigns.
Under the new Republican guidelines, if a leader or chairman is indicted on a felony charge, the Steering Committee must meet within 30 days and make a recommendation to the full Conference on whether the lawmaker should be removed from his position.
The new rule also requires a leader or chairman who has been convicted of a felony to immediately step down, a provision that did not exist in the previous rules.
At the urging of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (D), the Texas grand jury has already indicted three close DeLay associates for their fundraising activities. While Earle’s defenders point out that he has indicted more Democrats than Republicans in his career, Republican lawmakers who supported Wednesday’s rule change said they feared Earle would try to indict DeLay simply to remove him from his leadership post.
“We hope that this message goes out to any district attorney [anywhere] with a partisan agenda,” said Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), the original proponent of the rule change.
The GOP’s decision came during a marathon four-hour Conference meeting in the Cannon Caucus Room.
Fueled by 35 pizzas, Members debated the merits of several proposals before approving the final compromise version by voice vote. A handful of lawmakers spoke out against the change, including Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), Mike Castle (Del.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Tom Davis (Va.).
Shays said after the meeting that he feared the Conference’s decision would send the wrong message about Republicans’ past promises to hold themselves to a high ethical standard.
“What got us here [in the majority] is that we said we would be different,” Shays said. “We’re looking more and more like we’re not all that different.”
Shays estimated that 30 to 40 Members were opposed to the provision, and another aide who was present echoed that estimate. No lawmaker asked for a recorded vote after it was clear the measure would pass, and Rep. Bill Thomas (Calif.) suggested it would be best not to have a divisive secret ballot.
Bonilla’s base proposal — which simply would have left the step-down rule in place only for federal indictments — got the ball moving, but some Republican Members said Bonilla’s plan in its initial form would not have passed.
Thomas was instrumental in developing the version that did pass. The Californian first proposed that an indicted leader or chairman should still be removed but that the Steering Committee would review that decision.
Thomas and Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) then took the lead in crafting the final compromise, which leaves an indicted lawmaker in his post unless the Steering Committee recommends he step down.
Throughout the process, DeLay and his staff took pains not to interfere or give the appearance that they were engineering the rules change. The only member of the elected leadership who spoke in favor of the plan during Wednesday’s meeting was Conference Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.).
Following the vote, DeLay said he welcomed the result and reiterated his contention that Democrats in Washington and Texas were trying to “destroy” him.
Democrats were quick to criticize the GOP’s decision. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) alleged that Republicans had “sold their collective soul to maintain their grip on power.”
At the same time, Democrats on Wednesday said that they planned to tweak their own bylaws to ensure indicted Members cannot lead the Caucus.
Senior Democratic sources said leadership became aware late Tuesday — after word was out that Republicans were seeking to change their rules — that their own guidelines do not prohibit indicted Members from serving at the helm of the party. They said they would make the rules change as soon as the full Caucus convenes again, either later in December or in early January.
“There’s not even a question in our Caucus about allowing leaders who are indicted to continue to serve,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Current Democratic rules say no ranking member or committee chairman who has been indicted for a felony carrying jail time of at least two years can remain in their posts. Democratic sources said the Caucus would amend that rule — which predates the current slate of leaders — so it also includes the elected leaders.
“The current group of leaders who haven’t dealt with the topic before were surprised to hear that [the rule] didn’t affect leadership,” said a senior Democratic aide. “They thought it should affect leaders. They came to the realization that absolutely it should and it’s the right thing to do.”
Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi, said Democrats feel it is “unacceptable” to allow an indicted Member of Congress to serve in leadership. Because of that, he said, the leaders felt it appropriate to move forward to amend their governing document.
“We set high ethical standards for ourselves and the Republicans should do the same,” Daly said. “These are elected Representatives of the people and there should be high standards, particularly for leaders.”
The Democratic move might protect the party’s leaders against charges of hypocrisy, a theme Republicans focused on after their gathering Wednesday.
Shays, for example, paused in his critique of his own party’s actions Wednesday to criticize those of the Minority Leader.
Pointing out that Democrats did not have a rule regarding indicted leaders, Shays said Pelosi “has no right to pass judgment on Republicans.”
While the back-and-forth over indicted leaders dominated the day, the Republican Conference did take time to address other procedural issues in its meeting.
On the undercard, GOP lawmakers approved a plan crafted by Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and amended by DeLay requiring the leadership to grant a waiver before putting on the suspension calendar any bill that creates a new program; extends any program that originally included a sunset provision; or increases spending on any program by more than 10 percent a year.