USA Today blamed House ethics inaction on partisan gridlock, ignoring Republican rule changes weakening committee

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

The USA Today described the House ethics committee as being "gridlocked since January 2005 because of partisan disputes over its rules, staff and procedures." At that time, House Republicans weakened the ethics committee by granting either party complete power to block a complaint against a fellow party member.

In an April 5 USA Today report about the House ethics committee's inability, after meeting officially for the first time in 15 months, to launch an investigation into potential violations by several members, including Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), reporter Jim Drinkard described the committee as being "gridlocked since January 2005 because of partisan disputes over its rules, staff and procedures." But Drinkard failed to mention that the "gridlock" he cited over the committee's rules occurred as a result of rule changes ushered in by the Republican leadership in early 2005. As Media Matters for America previously noted, House Republicans weakened the ethics committee by granting either party complete power to block a complaint against a fellow party member.

The Associated Press reported on January 4, 2005, that the rules change "[p]rovides that the ethics committee will take no action on a complaint against a member unless the chairman and ranking minority member, or a majority of the committee, find within 45 days that an investigation is merited. Previously a complaint automatically went to an investigative committee if no action was taken within 45 days." In addition, House Republicans replaced two committee members with lawmakers loyal to DeLay; The Washington Post reported on February 11, 2005, that House Democrats demanded the removal of the two members who contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund, but those members remain on the committee.

House Republicans enacted other rule changes intended to protect DeLay that were later reversed. In November 2004, the full House voted to abolish a rule requiring a party leader to step aside if indicted, then reinstated it at the beginning of the 109th Congress on January 3, 2005. Also in January 2005, the House eliminated an ethics rule requiring further consideration of a complaint against a member in the event the 10 committee members (five in each party) are evenly split. This rule was reinstated in April 2005. For the duration of the 109th Congress, according to Roll Call, the ethics committee has been all but dormant, taking no official action except hiring staff.

Among other obstacles preventing the committee from working was a dispute over staffing; Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), the chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics committee is formally known, sought to give an aide authority over the committee's professional staff, a move that departed from House tradition and was opposed by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), the ranking minority member on the committee. The Hill reported in June 2005 that Mollohan and Hastings reached an agreement on the staffing dispute, with the committee hiring an external staff director.

DeLay and two of his associates were indicted for violations of Texas campaign finance law, and two of his former top aides pleaded guilty to corruption charges in connection with the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The House ethics committee has not initiated any investigations of its own into either matter. In 2004, according to the February 11, 2005, Post report, the committee admonished DeLay three times, "for enlisting the help of federal aviation officials in a Texas redistricting dispute, for the appearance of linking political donations and legislation, and for suggesting he would support the candidacy of a Republican lawmaker's son in return for a vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit."

From the April 5 edition of USA Today:

The House ethics committee, inactive for more than a year because of partisan disputes, has declined to launch investigations of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and other lawmakers accused of ethical lapses.

A six-hour meeting Thursday ended in partisan deadlock, according to one Republican and one Democrat familiar with the panel's deliberations. Both declined to be identified because of committee non-disclosure rules. At issue was whether the committee could begin investigations without interfering with ongoing criminal probes.

[...]

DeLay, who announced Tuesday his plans to retire from Congress, is the subject of a money-laundering case in his home state of Texas. In addition, two former aides have pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal. Richard Cullen, one of DeLay's attorneys, said federal prosecutors have not indicated that his client is implicated in that case.

The House ethics panel has been gridlocked since January 2005 because of partisan disputes over its rules, staff and procedures. In the meantime, ethical questions have arisen about DeLay; [Rep. Bob] Ney [R-OH], who had to step down as House Administration Committee chairman because he is also caught up in the Abramoff scandal; and [Rep. William] Jefferson [D-LA], who is under investigation in a bribery case. A former aide to Jefferson has pleaded guilty in that case.

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USA Today
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