Thursday, April 28, 2005

House Overturns New Ethics Rule as Republican Leadership Yields

The New York Times
April 28, 2005
House Overturns New Ethics Rule as Republican Leadership Yields

WASHINGTON, April 27 - In a rare retreat, the Republican-led House on Wednesday overturned contentious rule changes made to the House ethics process, with Republicans saying they surrendered to the Democrats to try to restore a way to enforce proper conduct in the House.

"I am willing to step back," said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the moving force behind ethics revisions forced through by the majority in January.

After a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, Mr. Hastert indicated that the reversal was primarily motivated by a need to resolve the torrent of questions surrounding the conduct of Representative Tom DeLay, the majority leader.

Mr. Hastert's relenting to Democrats' demands marked a startling turn as Republicans confronted the fallout from a stalled ethics process that Democrats said was rigged to protect Mr. DeLay, who was admonished three times by the ethics committee last year. The Republican majority has also come under increasing criticism for the rule changes, which their opponents said would render the committee impotent to pursue wrongdoing by members.

One of the most immediate effects of the House's reverting to the old rules will be the opening of an investigation into persistent questions about Mr. DeLay's overseas travel and his relationships with prominent lobbyists. His fund-raising operations are under investigation by a grand jury in Texas, and some of the lobbyists' roles have come under increasing scrutiny by federal investigators in recent months. While Mr. DeLay has not been named as a target of those investigations, the attention paid to his troubles has proven disruptive in the House.

On Wednesday night, after a pointed debate in which lawmakers traded blame for the ethics impasse, the House voted 406 to 20 to approve a hastily drafted resolution that essentially restored the rules in place at the start of the year for what is formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Under the changes that were revoked, complaints could have been dismissed within 45 days if the committee could not decide how to proceed, one lawyer could represent both the subject of the inquiry and other witnesses, and lawmakers would get new rights of notification and appeal.

The restoration of the rules means that if the committee deadlocks, complaints could be automatically sent to a special investigatory subcommittee, though that trigger has not been needed in the past. The panel has no prohibition on a lawyer's representing multiple clients, though some panel members believe one is needed and discourage the practice.

The vote marked another pivot in a politically charged ethics tug-of-war expected to persist in the House. Lawmakers of both parties said they expected the resolution of the standoff to lead to calls for ethics inquiries into not only Mr. DeLay but also other members, including Democratic leaders.

In light of the intense scrutiny of Mr. DeLay, many lawmakers have been examining their own travel and entertainment records and finding omissions that could potentially put them before the panel.

Mr. DeLay said he intended to submit documents that covered 10 years of his travel and other activities to the committee. He urged its leaders to put his record to the test to determine if he violated House rules.

"I look forward to providing the facts to the committee once it is up and running," Mr. DeLay said.

Representative Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, applauded the backtracking, which represented a significant political embarrassment for a majority accustomed to winning almost all of its fights. It was the second time in recent months that Republicans had to back off such a change; in January, House Republicans restored a rule prohibiting their leaders from staying in their posts if indicted.

Mr. Mollohan, the senior Democrat on the evenly divided ethics panel, had refused to allow the committee to get to work, saying the rule changes undermined the panel's authority and could lead to party-line resistance to investigations.

Mr. Mollohan said he would drop his objections when the committee next met, probably next week. He and Ms. Pelosi also reminded Republicans that decisions on hiring staff members for the committee required the consent of both parties.

"There is no point in insisting that the ethics committee be guided by fair and bipartisan rules if those charged with administering and interpreting them are tainted by partisan motives," Ms. Pelosi said in a statement.

In a briefing with reporters, Mr. DeLay called the House travel rules unclear and said he saw the coming ethics inquiry as a way to provide new guidance for lawmakers.

"I will be asking them to look at these issues not only as it pertains to me, but the entire House because, obviously, there are questions that need to be answered by the ethics committee as to what trips can be taken, how they can be taken," he said.

Republicans cite trips taken by Ms. Pelosi and her staff members as potential subjects of inquiry, along with a past finding by the Federal Election Commission that Ms. Pelosi improperly used multiple political action committees. They also pointed on Wednesday to recent actions by Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, to file new travel reports on old trips.

"If the rules are all right for Tom DeLay, they are all right for everyone else," said Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who supported Democrats in their push to overturn the rules changes. "People feel that Democrats have piled on Tom DeLay and forgotten the inappropriate behavior of Nancy and others."

Aides to Ms. Pelosi said her staff members have combed through travel records and found canceled checks and other material to demonstrate that her trips were proper. A spokeswoman for Mr. Hoyer said that his oversights were minor and that the 10 or so trips in question had been properly reported on an annual basis but not on required 30-day reports.

"There was full public disclosure," said his aide, Stacey Bernards.

Democrats say Republicans are trying to tar others to minimize Mr. DeLay's troubles. They said privately that they believed they could better withstand a partisan ethics exchange than the Republicans.

Democrats said the rule changes breached the bipartisan tradition of the ethics committee and were meant to make it harder for the panel to pursue investigations. Republicans said the actions of the panel in recent cases exposed flaws in the system, and they continued to defend the changes Wednesday.

In his letter to Ms. Pelosi proposing a return to the previous rules, Mr. Hastert accused Democrats of distorting the changes for political gain and said that the reversal would result in "leaving the unfairness inherent in the old system in place." But Mr. Hastert told reporters he was willing to move ahead because of the scrutiny of Mr. DeLay.

"There is a member, especially on our side, who needs to have the process move forward, so he can clear his name," the speaker said. "Right now, he can't clear his name."

Mr. Mollohan disputed Mr. Hastert's characterization of the old rules as unfair, but gave him credit.

"It can't be easy to come to this," he said. "But again, it is the right thing to do."