GOP Backs Off Ethics Rule Change

U.S. Representative of Texas, Tom Delay 2002/1/1
AP
House Republicans suddenly reversed course Monday, deciding to retain a tough standard for lawmaker discipline and reinstate a rule that would force Majority Leader Tom DeLay to step aside if indicted by a Texas grand jury.

The surprise dual decisions were made by Speaker Dennis Hastert and by DeLay — who asked GOP colleagues to undo the extreme act of loyalty they handed him in November. Then, Republicans changed a party rule so DeLay could retain his leadership post if indicted by the grand jury in Austin that charged three of the Texas Republican's associates.

When Republicans began their closed-door meeting Monday night, leaders were considering a rules change that would have made it tougher to rebuke a House member for misconduct. The proposal would have required a more specific finding of ethical violations.

Republicans gave no indication before the meeting that the indictment rule would be changed. Even more surprising was DeLay's decision to make the proposal himself.

Jonathan Grella, a DeLay spokesman, said DeLay still believed it was legitimate to allow a leader to retain his post while under indictment. But Grella said that by reinstating the rule that he step aside, DeLay was "denying the Democrats their lone issue. Anything that could undermine our agenda needs to be nipped in the bud."

Grella said Republicans did not know that DeLay would make the proposal. "He was doing some thinking and this was the conclusion he came to," the spokesman said.

Hastert made the proposal to retain the current standards of conduct.

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said, "It's a mark of a leader to take a bullet for the team and not for the team to take a bullet for the leader. I'm very glad we decided to stick with the rules."

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said that a change in standards of conduct "would have been the right thing to do but it was becoming a distraction."

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Republicans pulled back on the discipline rule because "the issue simply became too hot for them to handle."

Democrats on Monday toughened their own indictment rule. Previously, only committee chairmen were required to step aside if indicted. Now, the same rule applies to House Democratic leaders.

Rep. J. D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., agreed there was pressure on Republicans not to change conduct rules. "Constituents reacted and the House and, more importantly, the House leadership, responded accordingly," Hayworth said.

The House will debate all new rules proposals Tuesday, the first day of the 109th Congress.

Another Republican proposal would allow relatives to accompany a House member on a trip financed by a special interest group or nonprofit organization. Current rules specify a spouse or child may go along.

The code of conduct that was retained by the Republicans requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves "at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House." Some Republicans believed the standard is too general and wanted discipline to depend on a more specific finding of wrongdoing.

House Democrats and Republicans had an informal ethics truce after an investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's activities with tax-exempt organizations — a probe that ended seven years ago with a financial penalty against Gingrich.

That truce ended last year when a freshman Democrat, Chris Bell of Texas, filed a complaint that led to a rebuke of DeLay. The House ethics committee cited the general rule several times in criticizing the majority leader.

However, the panel did not find that DeLay violated any other standard of conduct, even though it concluded that DeLay created the appearance that an energy company's political donors were given special access to him. DeLay also was admonished for his office's contact with federal aviation officials, seeking their intervention in a Texas political dispute.

Later, the ethics panel — formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — also admonished Bell for filing a complaint that presented an exaggerated description of DeLay's conduct.

The outgoing chairman of the ethics committee, Republican Joel Hefley of Colorado, issued a statement before the meeting opposing any change in conduct rules that was not bipartisan.

Congressional watchdog groups joined House Democrats in opposition to a change, saying any such move would be for one purpose: to protect DeLay.

"All of this is designed to make one man truly above the law," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said, "Tom DeLay is a poster boy for ethics problems in the House."