GOP Pushes Rule Change To Protect DeLay’s Post
GOP Pushes Rule Change To Protect DeLay’s Post (WaPo, A01)
House Republicans proposed changing their rules last night to allow members indicted by state grand juries to remain in a leadership post, a move that would benefit Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in case he is charged by a Texas grand jury that has indicted three of his political associates, according to GOP leaders. The proposed rule change, which several leaders predicted would win approval at a closed meeting today, comes as House Republicans return to Washington feeling indebted to DeLay for the slightly enhanced majority they won in this month’s elections. DeLay led an aggressive redistricting effort in Texas last year that resulted in five Democratic House members retiring or losing reelection. It also triggered a grand jury inquiry into fundraising efforts related to the state legislature’s redistricting actions.
House GOP leaders and aides said many rank-and-file Republicans are eager to change the rule to help DeLay, and will do so if given a chance at today’s closed meeting. A handful of them have proposed language for changing the rule, and they will be free to offer amendments, officials said. Some aides said it was conceivable that DeLay and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) ultimately could decide the move would be politically damaging and ask their caucus not to do it. But Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), another member of the GOP leadership, said he did not think Hastert and DeLay would intervene.
House Republicans adopted the indictment rule in 1993, when they were trying to end four decades of Democratic control of the House, in part by highlighting Democrats’ ethical lapses. They said at the time that they held themselves to higher standards than prominent Democrats such as then-Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.), who eventually pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to prison.
House Republicans recognize that DeLay fought fiercely to widen their majority, and they are eager to protect him from an Austin-based investigation they view as baseless and partisan, said Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), the GOP’s chief deputy whip. “That’s why this [proposed rule change] is going to pass, assuming it’s submitted, because there is a tremendous recognition that Tom DeLay led on the issue to produce five more seats” for the Republicans, Cantor said after emerging from a meeting in which the Republican Conference welcomed new members and reelected Hastert and DeLay as its top leaders.
Other Republicans agreed the conference is likely to change the rule if given the chance. An indictment is simply an unproven allegation that should not require a party leader to step aside, said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), a former trial judge, said it makes sense to differentiate between federal and state indictments in shaping party rules because state grand juries often are led by partisan, elected prosecutors who may carry political grudges against lawmakers.
Republicans last night were tweaking the language of several proposals for changing the rule. The one drawing the most comment, by Rep. Henry Bonilla (Tex.), would allow leaders indicted by a state grand jury to stay on. However, a leader indicted by a federal court would have to step down at least temporarily.
This is an awkward situation, to say the least. Clearly, the prosecution of DeLay is motivated by partisan politics. It’s also true that an indictment is merely an allegation. It’s often been said that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” Still, I tend to agree with Steve Bainbridge on this one:
To undo the rule now to benefit Delay is unseemly – indeed, hypocritical. The House GOP caucus should require Delay to step down if he is indicted and let the judicial process vindicate Delay (assuming this really is just a partisan witch hunt).
Theoretically, the House could police itself on a case-by-case basis. The presumed rationale for this rule, though, is that it’s incredibly difficult to get a majority to go on the record to oust a powerful member of the Leadership. Having a rule in place a priori prevents that from being an issue.
The bottom line is that we shouldn’t change the rules in midstream for the benefit of someone in power. DeLay should come out against the rule change for the good of the institution and it could be made clear that DeLay’s replacement is just keeping his seat warm until his vindication.
Update (1424): Amy Ridenour disagrees, arguing that “the degree to which political disputes and rivalries are becoming criminalized” requires a rule change. Bainbridge retorts, citing my arguments and extending his own.
Update (2132): Not surprisingly, the House leadership sided with DeLay, ignoring the well considered advice of Bainbridge and ye ole OTB. And Christopher Shay, too:
House Republicans Change Rules to Protect DeLay (Bloomberg)
On a voice vote, the House Republican Conference changed a rule that required party leaders to step down if indicted for any crime that carries a prison sentence of two or more years. Now other Republican leaders would have 30 days to review a felony indictment and make recommendations to all House Republicans about whether the person should step aside. “We are trying to protect members of our leadership from any crackpot attorney taking on a political agenda,” said Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican who drafted the rules change.
Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said he was only one of “a handful” of lawmakers who spoke out against the rule change in the closed-door meeting where the changes were decided. Shays said he reminded other Republicans that when Republicans took over control of the House in 1994, they argued the party would be more ethical that the Democratic Party. The old rules were adopted in 1993 as Republicans were campaigning to retake the House. “I think it’s a mistake,” Shays told reporters after the meeting. “There were a number of Republicans who felt it was a mistake.”