In an “option of last resort” that has never been used before, leaders of the House ethics committee — apparently unable to agree on how to handle a complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — have thrown to the full panel the decision on whether to move to an official investigation of the Texas Republican.
This development sets up the possibility of deadlock within the ethics committee and thus no investigation of the allegations against the powerful Majority Leader.
Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the chairman and ranking member of the committee, had until Monday to act on the DeLay complaint or else ethics rules would automatically trigger an investigation. The committee has been studying the charges against DeLay for nearly three months.
But Hefley and Mollohan postponed a committee meeting scheduled for today during which the DeLay case was to have been discussed.
Either Hefley or Mollohan has now placed the DeLay complaint on the committee’s agenda for a future vote by all 10 Members of the panel, according to people familiar with the matter. A majority of committee members at this point will have to vote affirmatively for an investigation of the charges against DeLay, meaning that at least one Republican on the panel would have to support such a probe in order for the committee to move forward.
The move to place the DeLay case on the agenda is significant because it could signal a disagreement about the complaint between Hefley and Mollohan and sets up a potentially lengthy partisan fight that could result in no action being taken on the allegations against DeLay. While the two lawmakers could actually agree on a recommendation, their failure to act within the 90-day deadline has forced them to take this unusual step.
It’s still possible that the committee may take up a portion of the three-part complaint, which was filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) back in June. Committee rules allow the panel to investigate all or some of the charges against any lawmaker who faces an ethics complaint. But any decision to do so would require a majority vote on the evenly split panel. The vote could take place as early as next week, according to Democratic sources.
Forcing a vote in the ethics committee on whether to proceed with an investigation has never happened in the seven years since the ethics rules were rewritten. A major goal of the 1997 reforms was to prevent complaints from lingering with no resolution if the committee failed to take action.
The task force that rewrote ethics rules — which acted after the long political battle over charges against former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — foresaw only limited circumstances in which the committee would have to vote on what steps to take next because panel leaders could not agree on a joint recommendation.
“Such action would be taken, for example, if the chairman or ranking minority member disagreed about whether a given complaint should be forwarded to an investigative subcommittee and one of them desired a vote on that question by the full Committee,” stated an analysis of the ethics changes promulgated by the task force.
“Because of the procedural consequences that result from placement on the Committee agenda of whether to establish an investigative subcommittee, the Task Force expects that such action by the chairman or ranking member will be viewed as an option of last resort.”
Ethics watchdog groups that had been pressing for an investigation of DeLay were dismayed by the latest developments.
“This is just stunning,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the watchdog group that helped Bell draft the complaint.
Sloan said she fears the move means the committee will deadlock on a 5-5 vote that will leave the complaint in limbo until the expiration of the 108th Congress. When the 109th Congress convenes in January, Bell won’t even be a Member and Hefley will no longer be chairman of the ethics committee. At that point, the committee would have to vote to carry over any unresolved complaints — a situation likely to produce another deadlocked vote.
“It is incredible that they managed to manipulate the system to keep it from ever being investigated,” Sloan said. “It is just astonishing that the process can be manipulated that way. The rules are already bad enough as they are.”
Bell, who lost the Democratic primary in March, still held out some hope that the committee would proceed with an investigation of DeLay.
“The Republicans on the committee know DeLay would not survive a full investigation, so they’re trying to protect their party boss,” said Eric Burns, Bell’s spokesman. “The committee faces a very clear choice: They can stand up for the integrity of the House, or they can protect politics as usual.”
DeLay’s office declined to comment on the issue.
In his complaint, Bell alleged that DeLay illegally funneled corporate funds to Texas state legislative races, traded legislative favors for corporate campaign donations from Westar Energy Corp. and misused his office to intervene in the Texas redistricting fight last year.
DeLay has vehemently denied all the charges and has asked the ethics committee to dismiss the case.