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There’s Time to Reform the Ethics Process. Is There the Will?

When Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) initiated changes in the ethics process at the beginning of this Congress, the motives were plain on their face: to protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and potentially other lawmakers, from public scrutiny and possible additional embarrassment over any allegations of ethical misconduct. What an irony, then, that jamming through ethics changes on a wholly partisan basis — for the first time in the history of the ethics process, and maybe the first time ever — has put even more public focus on DeLay and denied him a forum to deflect the charges and move them off the front page. [IMGCAP(1)]

Now, even the Speaker seems to be having second thoughts — and a good thing, too. The ethics process is a key to the integrity of the House. It has been broken in one fashion or another for more than two decades, dating back to when it was used as a major tool in the war between the parties — a time when we called the dynamic “the criminalization of policy differences” — and then through the period of mutual disarmament which went too far and left little opportunity for a real check on unethical behavior in the House.

The Speaker may really believe that the steps he took were for the good of the House. But it is important to dissect them, to show that they represent the opposite.

Keep in mind that they all came after the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct had unanimously rebuked DeLay three times, in quite tough language — a set of actions that infuriated the House Republican leadership. The leadership’s displeasure with the committee and its actions was evident and overt. Also keep in mind that the only pending charge up for consideration by the committee was yet another one involving DeLay, regarding his actions in the 2002 Texas legislative elections that led to a major Congressional redistricting in the state.

First came the membership changes, including the ouster of Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and the removal, before their terms were up, of Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio). Hastert argued that Hefley was removed because the rules demanded it. But while Hefley had arguably reached his limit of service on the committee, the fact that the Speaker granted Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) a waiver to enable him to stay beyond his six-year limit as chairman of the Rules Committee showed that the Speaker’s hands were not tied. Of course, when Hefley himself said that he had been fired, it made the motives even more clear.

That is true in spades of the removal of Hulshof, who headed the subcommittee that investigated the charges against DeLay, and LaTourette. This was entirely an elective act by the Speaker. Other members who had served longer were allowed to stay. And when Hastert replaced them with two individuals, he tapped Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who had each given substantial amounts to DeLay’s legal defense fund. What more insensitive act could one commit to show that the committee was being openly stacked to deep-six any more charges against the Majority Leader?

If one juxtaposes these changes in committee membership with the rules change that allowed one party for the first time to block any investigation from going forward, the blatant political tilt of the rules change becomes abundantly clear. First you purge the committee of those who imposed rebukes on DeLay and replace them with those who have contributed to his defense fund; then you change the rules to allow the new Republican bloc acting alone to kill future investigations. When the Speaker and his aides say that they acted to protect the institution and make the ethics process bipartisan, they are using “Alice in Wonderland” logic.

Having said that, let me add that Hastert is not someone who is personally ethically challenged. And he is, I hope, still at heart a House guy and an institutionalist.

He has been terribly misguided the past four years, operating the House in the most partisan fashion we have seen since the days of Speakers Thomas Reed (R-Maine) and Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.), using more closed rules and devices to shut off debate and quash minority voices than the Democrats ever did, turning nonpartisan issues like continuity of government into partisan ones, abandoning regular order and longstanding norms to win on issues like Medicare prescription drugs.

But the House of Representatives is not a House of Commons, and the cracks are beginning to show. The ethics debacle threatens to blow up in the face of the majority and deeply damage the basic integrity of the House. We are already seeing it seep into public opinion.

Mr. Speaker, you now have an opening to move the House back a bit toward its roots and achieve balance: Embrace Hefley and embrace a new process of ethics reform. Whether you believe they are politically motivated or not, look carefully at the ideas in the ethics bill being introduced by Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.). Recreate the ethics committee to return it to its genuine bipartisan spirit, and change the membership so that there are no obvious conflicts of interest, and so that all the members will put institutional loyalties above their partisan ties.

And consider a broader reform to take the initiation of ethics investigations out of the political morass and into a new and more independent venue — not one of special prosecutors or independent counsels, or of people unfamiliar with the legislative process, but one that engages former Members such as Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), David Skaggs (D-Colo.), Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) and John McCollister (R-Neb.), to determine when the House ethics panel should engage in a fuller investigation of allegations against a Member or staffer. A step back on ethics is both good politics and good behavior — two things that have been sorely lacking in recent times.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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