House votes to relax internal ethics rules

GOP-backed change makes it more difficult to pursue inquiries

For Immediate Release:

January 5, 2005

Contact:Rick Klein and Susan Milligan

The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- The House yesterday loosened its internal ethics guidelines by voting to make it more difficult for ethics probes to be launched against members of Congress.

The vote came about 20 hours after House Republicans late Monday backed down from a pair of more drastic changes to ethics regulations, when faced with outrage from Democrats and some rank-and-file Republicans.

But House leaders prevailed yesterday with another change that will allow a partisan bloc of either party's ethics committee members to shield a lawmaker from an investigation. Tie votes on the committee will kill investigations in the future; previously, deadlocks of the committee's five Democrats and five Republicans allowed inquiries to move ahead.

"If Republican members don't want to move, it will stop any ethical investigation in its tracks," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip. "The big issue today of course is what kind of Congress we're going to have."

Although the change passed 220-195, it amounted to only a partial victory for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's leadership team, since it was forced to reverse course on two other ethics provisions. One would have limited ethics investigations to conduct specifically prohibited in internal guidelines, and another would have allowed members who are indicted to remain in their leadership posts. They were abandoned Monday night, after several Republican lawmakers, including the chairman of the ethics committee, denounced the package of proposed ethics changes.

Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton, said the failure of GOP leaders to push through all of their changes displays a fissure in the Republican majority that will reappear on other issues.

"This is the first breach in the wall," Frank said. "It's an interesting sign of troubles ahead. They didn't have the votes, obviously, and until recently, they could get the votes for anything they wanted."

Majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas disputed assertions that Republican leaders didn't have enough votes to approve the broader package. He said GOP leaders only revised their plan because they didn't want to help Democrats play politics with the ethics issue.

"It's better to take it off the table, and not give the Democrats ammunition on the first day" of the new Congress, DeLay said yesterday as he exited the House chamber. "I'm considering what's good for the members, good for the country."

DeLay was widely seen as the motivating factor behind efforts to loosen ethics regulations in the House. He was twice formally admonished by the ethics committee last year, and has seen three of his associates indicted for alleged fund-raising improprieties. But the majority leader said he wasn't the reason for the changes. "It wasn't about me," DeLay said.

Still, Democrats took to the House floor to accuse Republican leaders of trying to protect their own.

"What could the Republicans be afraid of, that they could so fundamentally undermine the ethics process of the House?" said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado, the ethics chairman whose objection to the changes was a major factor in forcing Republican leaders to reconsider, supported the final package but said he still has reservations about the change.

He said he will seek to repeal the provision that will allow investigations to die on tie votes, if he is allowed to stay as chairman. Hastert's team is considering ousting Hefley from his chairmanship, citing term limits, but Hefley disagreed with their interpretation of the term-limit rules and reiterated his desire to remain as committee chairman yesterday.

But after bucking leadership again this week, he was realistic about his chances. "I expect to be booted," Hefley said.