Ethics Truce Frays in House
A seven-year ethics truce between congressional Republicans and Democrats has begun to fray under the weight of mounting alleged abuses by House GOP leaders and tensions among Democrats over how aggressively to pursue the matters.
Some Democrats and outside groups think the reported wrongdoings have reached a critical mass that cries out for investigations and reforms. Democratic leaders, however, are wary of breaking the long cease-fire that has protected both parties from the types of ethics charges and countercharges that roiled Congress and toppled two speakers in the 1980s and ’90s.
Central to the debate is the House ethics committee, largely dormant since the unwritten truce took effect but rousing in recent days to defend itself against the rain of criticism. Watchdog groups are demanding that the secretive panel show more vigor in pursuing published reports of questionable behavior by lawmakers, and they want an end to the House-approved 1997 rule that bars ethics inquiries based solely on complaints from outsiders.
Some Democratic activists also are seething, convinced their elected officials are letting Republicans flout ethical standards in ways that were unthinkable when the GOP took control of the House in 1994. Republicans had attacked the entrenched Democrats’ abuse of the House bank and post office and vowed to end Congress’s “cycle of scandal.”
The recent allegations touch top lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and several committee chairmen. They involve suggestions of bribery and threats on the House floor, illegal use of campaign funds, misuse of a federal agency for political purposes, conflicts of interest, and strong-arm tactics against lobbyists and campaign contributors.
Yet prominent Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) — who this month decried “the fraying of the moral fiber of what goes on here” — have repeatedly declined to press ethics charges or make them a political priority. Pelosi said she does not think leaders should bring ethics charges against lawmakers from the opposing party.
Since 1997, the House ethics panel has remained quiet as:
Ã¢€¢ A Texas grand jury began investigating a political action committee set up by DeLay.
Ã¢€¢ Several newspapers described how officers of Kansas-based Westar Energy wrote memos about steering $56,500 to GOP campaigns in return for legislative help from DeLay and Reps. W. J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.). Barton later sponsored a legislative exemption sought by Westar, but it eventually was dropped.
Ã¢€¢ The Washington Post reported that Blunt, the House’s third-ranking Republican, tried to slip a last-minute provision into a bill to help a tobacco company for which his son lobbied. Blunt said the measure was meant to combat cigarette smuggling, but a Hastert aide removed it.
Ã¢€¢ Common Cause, the public watchdog group that helped topple Wright, called for an ethics probe after the Post reported that aides to Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, told a trade group that a congressional probe might ease if the group replaced its Democratic lobbyist with a Republican.
Ã¢€¢ The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy21.org, public interest groups, charged DeLay’s charitable children’s organization is improperly soliciting large donations from special interests to finance lavish parties at this summer’s Republican National Convention. DeLay says the charity is legal and proper.
Clearly, the use of the ethics process as a political “gotcha” game is detrimental to the effective operation of Congress. But, surely, ignoring potentially serious abuses as a matter of policy is a bad idea. Especially if people are going to be accused of violations in the press with no chance of exoneration.