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Republicans Force Ethics Changes Through House

Despite strong Democratic opposition, the House GOP leadership today pushed through a rules package for the 109th Congress that makes minor, yet symbolically important, changes to the procedures used by the ethics committee.

Democrats, including those serving on the ethics panel, vociferously opposed the changes, as did Congressional watchdog groups. But they lost a showdown with Republicans on a 222-196 vote.

Under the GOP’s ethics revisions, if the chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct are unable to agree on what recommendation to issue following a review of an ethics complaint, the panel will take a majority vote on whether to create an investigative subcommittee to look into the matter.

Previously, an investigative subcommittee was automatically created if those two lawmakers could not reach agreement or neither asked for a vote on the complaint by the full panel. The committee faced such a situation while evaluating a complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) last year. The controversy over the committee’s handling of the DeLay case spurred today’s rules changes.

Members will also be allowed to contest a letter of admonishment issued by the ethics committee, either by having their own comments attached to such a letter or asking for an adjudicatory subcommittee to review the allegations before the committee acts. Members who are mentioned in such admonishment letters but who are not the subject of a committee inquiry will also be allowed to challenge the findings. DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee in two separate investigations last Congress.

Republican leaders gained the support of Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the ethics committee in the 108th Congress, for the rules package, although his enthusiasm for the revisions was tepid. Hefley had opposed the package as it was originally planned, especially a GOP proposal to prohibit the committee from using actions in violation of the House’s Code of Conduct as a standard for punishing Members.

“While I will not vote against the rules package because of these provisions, I urge the leadership to reconsider all the amendments added to the committee’s procedural rules without a bipartisan process,” Hefley said prior to the vote.

The leadership scrapped that section of the package Monday night.

The Colorado Republican spoke out against any change in how complaints under review by the chairman and ranking member are handled, and suggested that particular revision was “sure to encourage deadlock and partisanship within the committee.”

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is likely to remove Hefley, who angered many Republicans for his handling of the DeLay case, from the ethics chairmanship, possibly this week.

“I don’t know,” Hefley said when asked by reporters about his future as chairman. “I expect to be booted.”

Democrats uniformly opposed the rules package because it included the ethics provisions, saying Republicans were attempting to undermine the credibility of the House and the confidence of the American public in Congress. Democrats countered with their own rules package that would have struck down the Republican revisions, and included two new proposals designed to highlight what Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared was “arrogance” on behalf of the GOP leadership.

The first, which Pelosi called the “Tauzin Rule” after former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), would prevent a Member from seeking a job with any entity, including corporations or trade groups, that has legislation before a committee on which the lawmaker serves. Tauzin was accused of negotiating with officials from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America while overseeing passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill during the previous Congress, a charge the lawmaker denied.

In addition, the California Democrat pushed for a three-day layover for major legislation before it is voted upon. Pelosi singled out the debate over the 2005 omnibus spending bill as an example of where the House failed to allow full consideration of a highly complex bill.

On the floor, the Democrats argued that current House rules allow for fair consideration of ethics complaints, adding that the changes effectively give members of the majority veto power over any complaint they don’t like. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Republicans were “gutting the ethical rules of the House.” Pelosi called the package “shameless” and said it will undermine the ethical standards of the House.

But Republicans stood firm behind their leadership and approved the rules package by a solid majority.

“In this package, we ensure that we will not see the politicization of the ethics process, which we have seen in the past,” said Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who managed the floor debate for the GOP leadership. Republicans were concerned that pressure from watchdog groups and the media forced the ethics committee to entertain the DeLay complaint last year, despite a determined effort by the Texas Republican to have it dismissed outright.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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