Watchdog Groups Condemn Congressional Efforts to Eviscerate Ethics Rules
House Republican Leaders Propose to Drop Ethics Standards, Punish Ethics Committee that Scolded Tom DeLay
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, a non-partisan coalition of eight government watchdog groups has condemned a new set of proposals by congressional Republican leaders for dramatically weakening House ethics rules. The proposed “amendments” to House ethics rules, which are scheduled for a floor vote tomorrow – the opening day of the new Congress – reportedly include:
‘ Dropping the standard for ethics violations. Currently, it is a violation of House ethics rules to act in such a way that creates the appearance of corruption. The new proposal would eliminate that ethics standard and make only actual criminal behavior a violation of ethics rules.
‘ Deadlocking the ability of the Ethics Committee to investigate complaints. If the bipartisan House Ethics Committee ties along party lines whether to conduct an investigation, a complaint automatically triggers an investigation within 45 days. The new proposal would require a majority vote to initiate any investigation.
‘ Punishing members of the Ethics Committee who scolded Rep. Tom DeLay for ethics transgressions. A few months ago, the bipartisan House Ethics Committee unanimously voted to admonish DeLay for offering his endorsement to a colleague’s son in exchange for a floor vote, for appearing to link campaign donations with legislation, and for diverting FAA resources to chase after Texas legislators over a partisan squabble. Rep. Joel Hefley, the Republican chair of the Ethics Committee, and perhaps other Republican members of the committee who voted for the admonishment, are now facing a drive to remove them from the committee.
Public Citizen, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, Judicial Watch, the Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Citizens for Responsibility for Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Public Campaign, all join in calling upon Congress to stop this assault on House ethics rules.
These threats against House ethics rules are particularly distressing because they come at a moment when the Ethics Committee has finally begun taking some steps to enforce the ethics rules. Despite the considerable difficulty of sitting in judgment of a powerful colleague, particularly House Majority Leader DeLay, the members of the Ethics Committee this year started the process of showing that members can be held accountable for ethical improprieties. It is time to continue along that road and strengthen the rules, not further cripple them.
Toward that end, we urge the members of the House to take the following steps when they meet in the 109th Congress:
First, keep the appearance of corruption standard as the grounds for House ethics rules. Rule 23 of the House ethics rules, which is slated for the dustbin under the new proposals, reads in part: “A member . officer or employee of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.” This means that even if quid pro quo corruption cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, members of Congress should conduct themselves regardless in a manner where even the appearance of corruption is avoided. If it doesn’t pass the smell test, it should not pass House ethics rules.
Second, do not tie the hands of the Ethics Committee in deadlock. The Ethics Committee is evenly split between Republican and Democratic members. The new rule changes would require a majority vote to even begin looking at the validity of complaints. Complaints must not be ignored simply because of a deadlock vote along party lines.
Third, take no retribution against members of the Ethics Committee who voted their conscience in admonishing Tom DeLay. After being threatened by some members of Congress for admonishing DeLay, Ethics Committee Chair Joel Hefley now finds himself negotiating with House leaders over whether he can stay on the committee. Other member of the Ethics Committee may also face retribution. Such a mean-spirited and vindictive act by House leaders can only further diminish public confidence in Congress by painting it as hopelessly politicized and self-dealing.
Fourth, allow outside groups to file ethics complaints when warranted. In 1997, the House voted to change its own rules to forbid any outside group or citizen from filing a complaint to request an investigation of an alleged ethics violation by a member. This put the House on a distinctly different footing from the Senate, which allows outside complaints. As a result, neither ordinary citizens nor watchdog organizations are able to trigger investigations. Only members may bring complaints against other members – and given the threat of retribution that House leaders level against members who file complaints, no one left is allowed – or dares – to hold members of Congress accountable for their behavior.
We are on the verge of collapse of holding members of Congress to a meaningful code of ethics. Tomorrow nothing less than the integrity of Congress shall be voted upon.
Craig Holman, Public Citizen (202) 454-5182
Mark Glaze, Campaign Legal Center (202) 736-2200
Fred Wertheimer, Democracy 21 (202) 429-2008
Mary Boyle, Common Cause (202) 736-5770
Melanie Sloan, CREW (202) 588-5565
Mark Clack, Public Campaign (202) 293-0222
Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch (888) 593-8442
Steve Weiss, Center for Responsive Politics (202) 857-0044