A year after being bounced as chairman of the House ethics committee, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., seems relaxed and upbeat.
Many believe that party leaders ousted Hefley because he rebuked former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had come before the committee on ethics questions and quit the leadership job after being indicted on charges of laundering campaign funds.
But Hefley isn’t looking back.
In an interview last week, he said DeLay, R-Texas, had been "dragging the party down."
"It’s very much better that he’s no longer in that job," Hefley said.
And he offered suggestions on how Republicans can prevent such problems from happening again, reforms he hopes will pass before he retires at the end of the year.
He wants to bolster protections for ethics committee members and their staffs, and he wants to add due-process rights for the accused so the committee can’t be used to unfairly attack political foes. He also wants to limit the amount of money lobbyists can give to candidates and prevent them from giving lawmakers gifts.
Hefley’s plans are still a work in progress. He hopes to introduce the first of two or three ethics bills as early as this week.
The legislation will be offered as Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to tighten ethics rules after recent scandals. Besides DeLay, former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., admitted he took bribes and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal felony charges related to congressional influence peddling.
But Hefley cautioned against passing laws for appearances’ sake.
"It’s not that we need massive change in most of the rules, but that we need to implement the rules we have," he said. "I’m afraid we’re going to do a lot of things that really don’t make sense to try to convince the American public that we’re doing something meaningful _ when we really aren’t."
One example is a measure passed by the House earlier this year blocking access to the House floor and gym to former members of Congress now working as lobbyists, he said.
"Are we keeping ourselves pure because former members can’t come on the House floor?" Hefley asked. Under the rule, former Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and James Traficant, D-Ohio _ who both served time in prison _ can come on the House floor, "but a member who happens to lobby for someone can’t? It’s just a silly show thing."
It’s harder to make real changes, such as limiting the ability of lobbyists to contribute to campaigns, he said.
Hefley is best known for his role in the DeLay controversy. But the congressman, who once worked as a cowboy and an artist, spent many of his 20 years in office trying to protect Fort Carson, the Army post southwest of Colorado Springs. He says he still enjoys his role on the Armed Services Committee and has already had misgivings about his decision to retire.
DeLay had nothing to do with plans to leave office, he said.
"I’ve gotten tired of some of the things you have to do in the job, like being in the airplane twice a week (to fly to Washington), the raising money, the party constantly pounding you to raise more money to give to the party," he said.
So far, he hasn’t endorsed any of the four Republicans hoping to succeed him. One of the candidates, Jeff Crank, is a former aide.
All the Republican hopefuls have valuable campaign and government backgrounds, Hefley said. But he said the Democratic candidate, former Air Force Academy professor and Gulf War veteran Jay Fawcett, can’t win because he doesn’t have enough experience.
"You ordinarily don’t roll out of bed in the morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘I think I might be a great congressman,’ and go run for Congress," Hefley said of Fawcett. "You ordinarily don’t play in the big leagues until you’ve played in the minors. Fawcett has not played in the minors."