The Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The House opened the new congressional session Tuesday by voting to make it harder for the ethics committee to initiate investigations of members, as GOP leaders salvaged one key element of a discarded plan for easing ethics standards.
Under the new rule, a majority of the ethics committee's members will have to vote to launch an investigation. Previously, an investigation could proceed even if the committee — with five Republicans and five Democrats — was deadlocked.
The change could mean that ethics investigations, which are rare now, will become even less frequent, because they would require a vote in favor of a probe by a member of the prospective target's party.
The action came as Republican leaders are preparing an especially ambitious agenda for the session, capitalizing on a reelected president and larger GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate.
The rule change was part of a package drafted by the chamber's GOP majority. The vote, strictly along party lines, was 220-195. In the California delegation, Reps. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar) did not vote.
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), chairman of the House Rules Committee, defended the rule change, saying it would "restore the presumption of innocence in our process."
The change, however, came under attack from Democrats and government watchdog groups.
"We have been told that the most egregious attempts to weaken the ethics system have been abandoned. I beg to differ," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), adding, "The rule before us will have a concrete, demonstrable effect on every ethics complaint filed from this day forward."
Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog organization Democracy 21, said that the change would "seriously cripple the ability of the ethics committee to do its job."
A coalition of congressional watchdog groups, including the citizens' advocacy organization Common Cause and the conservative Judicial Watch, said in a letter to lawmakers that changing the rule to require majority approval for an investigation would "sharply increase the incentive for partisan, deadlock votes on the committee, and would go a long way toward guaranteeing that most ethics complaints would be dead on arrival."
Common Cause president Chellie Pingree said that under the new rule, "if the parties enforce discipline, no ethics complaint will ever see the light of day."
Watchdog groups also expressed concern about reports that House GOP leaders may remove Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman of the House ethics committee, known formally as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. A decision could come today.
House Republicans sought to blunt criticism of the rule change with their decision Monday to drop another controversial ethics proposal. It would have weakened a 36-year-old rule that allows complaints to be filed against members for conduct that creates the appearance of corruption, although it may break no law. The proposed change would have limited ethics complaints to conduct that violated specific rules or laws.
It was this provision that resulted in rebukes last year to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas for his hardball political tactics.
In addition, the GOP majority revoked a party rule that permitted DeLay to keep his leadership position even if he is indicted by a grand jury in his home state. The Republicans adopted that rule in November, two months after a Texas grand jury indicted three men, involved with a political fundraising committee associated with DeLay, for improperly using corporate contributions to help elect a Republican majority to the Texas Legislature in 2002.
On Monday, however, DeLay asked his colleagues to rescind that rule, contending that it was distracting from the GOP legislation agenda. He has said that he has not been contacted by the district attorney's office and does not expect to be indicted. If he is, under the newly retained rule he will have to step down from his leadership position.
DeLay said Tuesday that the rule change in November was initiated by members, not the leadership, because of perceived politicization of prosecutions.
"It wasn't about us," DeLay said. "It's about what's been going on across this nation. Democrats have used prosecutors to destroy reputations and careers [of Republican opponents] instead of beating them in the battle of ideas."
Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, said DeLay's ethics problems had not risen to the point where they threatened the Republican agenda, in large part because the Texas congressman — while a celebrity at home and in Washington — was not a household name nationwide.
"The average person doesn't know who Tom DeLay is," Rothenberg said. "But he's an important strategist, thinker, operative in the House — and the degree to which he is debilitated or silenced … could hurt House Republicans and the House Republican leadership."
In other action on the first day of the new Congress, usually a session of pomp and ceremony, House members expressed sympathy for Asia's tsunami victims and the death Saturday of their colleague, Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento).
The House reelected J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as speaker and swore in 40 new members, including three who previously served, as well as a nonvoting delegate from Puerto Rico. The Senate welcomed nine new members, including the third African American to serve since Reconstruction and two Hispanics, the chamber's first since 1977.