By Mary Curtius
Times Staff Writer
April 28, 2005
WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly repealed controversial rules Wednesday night that had kept its ethics committee from functioning, a vote expected to pave the way for a new investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Lawmakers acted hours after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told reporters that he had decided to recommend the repeal of ethics committee rules he had pushed through the House in January.
Democrats had retaliated against the changes — which they said would make it too difficult to launch and conduct investigations of lawmakers — by refusing to let the ethics committee organize.
A repeal of the rules was approved, 406 to 20. The unanimity of the vote masked the discord sparked by the issue.
The standoff over the ethics panel had become a political embarrassment for Republicans in the face of mounting questions about DeLay's foreign travel funded by outside groups and his ties to a lobbyist who is under federal investigation.
DeLay has denied any wrongdoing and has said he would welcome an investigation by the ethics committee. Hastert said clearing the way for such an inquiry was one of his motives for seeking to end the impasse with Democrats.
"I think there is a member, especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name," Hastert said Wednesday in an obvious reference to DeLay.
Democrats welcomed Hastert's move.
"It's a very happy day for the Congress," said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. It is the only House committee divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, with five members from each party.
DeLay said he supported Hastert's move and reiterated that he looked forward to addressing concerns the committee might have about his conduct.
He said his staff had been putting together documents on his travels during the last decade to give to the committee.
"The House needs a functioning ethics committee, and it's the Republicans who have been trying to make that happen," DeLay said. "I look forward to providing the facts to the committee, once it's up and running."
Mollohan said he believed the committee could meet and organize as early as next week. But he refused to say whether he thought that it would quickly launch an investigation of DeLay.
He said the committee must resolve a dispute over the panel's staffing before turning its attention to new or pending cases.
Mollohan and other Democrats said the rule change they most objected to would have made it too easy for a complaint against a member to be dismissed without a vote by the committee. Under the rule, the complaint would have been dismissed if a majority of panel members failed to act on it within 45 days of the complaint being filed.
Democrats said that the change would have allowed the committee's GOP members to avoid tough votes by letting the clock run out on a complaint. Republicans said the deadline would have ensured that no member's case would be left in limbo.
Another rule would have allowed a lawyer representing a member under investigation to also represent witnesses against the lawmaker.
Republicans said that ensured a fundamental right of all Americans to counsel of their choosing. But Democrats said the change would have hampered the committee's ability to conduct its investigations.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California praised Hastert's decision to repeal the rule changes as "a victory for the American people."
In a statement, she said, "Americans understood what was at stake — the integrity of the House — and in one voice demanded that the House return to a credible, viable and nonpartisan ethics process."
But the tenor of comments on and off the House floor Wednesday made it clear that the dispute had left its mark on a chamber already riven by harsh partisan politics.
Some members said they feared that once the committee was revived, it could find itself dealing with an ethics war — with each party filing charges against opposing members over travel and other issues.
"I think there's no question" that an ethics war may break out, said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
"It is just like nuclear arsenals," Foley said. "When the first person pulls the trigger, everyone else fires. It could escalate."
Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-N.Y.), during House debate Wednesday night, said rescinding the rules provided "some hope that the integrity of this body, which has been so badly tarnished by the actions of [the Republican] majority, can one day be restored."
In January, "when they thought no one was looking," Republicans "passed a package that gutted the House ethics standards," she said.
But Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.) denounced Democrats as "false prophets of justice, engaged in ignominious conduct" of their own. The rule changes had been valid ones, Buyer said, and he was one of the 20 — all Republicans — voting against repealing them.
The ethics committee had voted unanimously three times last year to admonish DeLay for political tactics that the panel characterized as inappropriate.
Critics of the new rules adopted in January had charged they were aimed at shielding DeLay from further investigations. Hastert and other Republicans denied those charges.
Some Republicans acknowledged recently that the ethics flap was hurting the party.
Thomas Mann, a specialist in the workings of Congress at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said Hastert's move to rescind the rules showed that the Republicans had decided to cut their political losses.
"Hastert is prepared to take a few days of very bad press in hopes of getting beyond it,'' Mann said.
In a two-page letter explaining his decision to Pelosi, Hastert defended the changes Republicans had made, saying they were "common sense reforms."
But he said the rules had "sadly been twisted and distorted and used as political fodder."
Other Republicans said they were upset that Democrats had refused to compromise on the rule changes.
"People are angry on the Republican side," said Rep. Wally Herger (R-Marysville).
But Herger said he supported Hastert's decision and hoped it would lead to an investigation of DeLay by the ethics committee, which Herger said was needed so the majority leader could clear himself.
He also said he did not believe the Republicans' concession would stop what he called "politically motivated attacks" on DeLay and others.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the only House Republican to call for DeLay to resign as majority leader because of the questions surrounding his conduct, said his party needed to resolve the ethics committee issue and refocus public attention on GOP accomplishments.
"We're in charge and we are doing some pretty incredible things," he said, "but nobody is paying any attention to it."
Among California's 53 House members, all 20 Republicans and 31 Democrats supported repealing the rules.
Two Democrats did not vote — Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and Barbara Lee of Oakland.