Rigging the Rules

For Immediate Release:

January 2, 2005

Contact:Editorial

Houston Chronicle

The latest maneuvering on ethics rules by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and in Austin revises the old homily about how you play the game being more important than whether you win or lose. The new maxim, explicitly designed to protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land from possible indictments for campaign law violations, can be summarized as follows:

"When in danger of losing, simply rewrite the rules in the middle of the game to make it impossible for the other side to win."

That's what seems to be happening in Washington, D.C. House Republicans, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, are pushing a plan to require the House ethics panel, which has an even balance between Republicans and Democrats, to produce a majority vote before it can undertake an ethics investigation. At present, a tie vote would keep a complaint pending. Such a change would have stopped the panel from investigating allegations of campaign finance law violations and issuing several reprimands against DeLay earlier this year.

In another move seen as retaliation for those reprimands, House Republicans are pressing to replace the chair of the ethics panel, Rep. Joel Hefley, a Republican. As chairman, Hefley allowed the DeLay investigation to go forward. According to Fred Wertheimer, president of the government watchdog group Democracy 21, "the removal of Representative Hefley ... would constitute a flat out declaration of war by Speaker Hastert against ethics in the House."

Meanwhile, closer to home, Republican lawmakers in Austin are honing proposed bills to remove authority for prosecuting campaign violations from local district attorneys and vest it with the Texas attorney general. That would stop Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle from prosecuting indicted DeLay associates and put the ball in Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott's court. Another proposal would legalize the corporate contributions that are the focus of Earle's investigation.

Outgoing Houston Congressman Chris Bell brought the first complaint to the House committee in seven years, one that resulted in the DeLay reprimand. The panel also slapped Bell's hand for exaggerating allegations for political gain. Bell says House Republicans' vote to allow DeLay to serve as majority leader even if indicted indicates just how far they are willing to go.

"It seems that they don't believe the rules apply to them, and if they don't like the rules, they will simply work to change them." According to Bell, "the only surprise is that, given the overwhelming public reaction against the previous rules changes, that they would now attempt to go even further."

In scandals involving Democrats, no one proposed changing established congressional rules or rewriting state law to shield officials from the consequences of their actions. Political power may be intoxicating, but those who have drunk too much of it cannot be allowed to alter procedures and laws to suit their whims and immunize their transgressions.