Republicans Pull End Run on Ethics Rule Changes

A day after backing off a rules change that would have allowed an indicted congressional leader to retain his post, the House of Representatives on Tuesday adopted a separate change that will make it harder to pursue ethics probes of members of Congress.

The vote on the rules package was 220-195 along party lines. The Republicans who control the House said the changes are needed to make the ethics system work better while the Democratic minority said it would “gut” the House’s main means of policing its members.

Five members of each party serve on the House ethics panel and under the current system, a tie vote would launch an ethics probe. Under the new rule, a tie or failure to make a decision within 45 days would mean no action would be taken.

A partnership of watchdog groups calling itself the Congressional Ethics Coalition said the changes “would sharply increase the incentive for partisan, deadlock votes on the committee, and would go a long way toward guaranteeing that most ethics complaints would be dead on arrival.”

The came shortly after House Republicans dropped a rule they had endorsed just a few weeks ago that would have allowed Majority Leader Tom DeLay to retain his leadership position even if he is indicted in his home state of Texas.

Three DeLay associates have already been indicted in an improper fund-raising case but DeLay has characterized the investigation as politically motivated and has said he does not anticipate being charged.

While Democrats gave grudging praise to Republicans for backing off that policy and abandoning some other ethics proposals, they sharply attacked the new rule about tie votes.

“The Republicans have given themselves veto power over any complaint they do not deem palatable,” said New York Democrat Louise Slaughter. “It will reduce this (ethics) committee to a paper tiger.

Ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican whose future tenure in the chairmanship will be decided by House Speaker Dennis Hastert in the next few days, had initially publicly opposed the changes. But he voted for them after Republicans scaled them back on Monday.

Hefley said he would work to modify changes, which he still found objectionable. He said the House was not gutting the system. “We’re tweaking it – and we’re tweaking some of it in a way I wish we weren’t.”

But he added, “I think we have a package now that we can live with.”

Rules Committee chairman David Dreier, a California Republican, said the change “is designed to protect this institution and its members.”