Vote Illustrates House Stalemate Over Ethics

Times Staff Writer

A House vote Thursday highlighted the continuing paralysis of the chamber’s ethics committee, six weeks after lawmakers thought they had ended an impasse that was keeping the panel from opening an investigation focusing on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Republicans easily defeated a resolution by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that was intended as a rebuke of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), whom Democrats accuse of trying to politicize the committee’s staff.

Democrats oppose Hastings’ effort to install his staff director as the committee’s chief of staff, a move they say violates panel rules that call for a nonpartisan staff.


Pelosi’s resolution was tabled -- effectively killed -- by a 219-199 party-line vote. Democrats immediately accused Republicans of having damaged the credibility of a panel whose effectiveness rests on its impartiality. Republicans dismissed the Pelosi resolution as a political stunt.

But the vote also underscored how both parties have hardened their positions in the increasingly bitter dispute over how the House ethics committee should operate.

The standoff has not only thwarted an expected investigation into some of DeLay’s overseas trips, but has also left the House with no means of policing itself.

“As this political fight is taking place, American citizens are waiting for this committee to weigh in on lobbying, trips” and other issues such as campaign financing, said Alex Knott, an official at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that studies public policy. “These guys can’t make decisions on basic staffing issues.”

Other congressional watchdog organizations say the deadlock bolsters their calls for an independent counsel to examine questions about DeLay, whom the groups say the Republican-controlled House cannot credibly investigate.

The ethics committee “for all practical purposes doesn’t exist,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, one of the watchdog groups.

Republicans and Democrats agree that the situation has damaged the House’s credibility. But each party blames the other.

The staffing fight involving the ethics committee has proved intractable, strategists for both parties say, because of the political stakes of an investigation into DeLay.

The ethics committee rebuked DeLay three times last year for various transgressions. Since then, newspaper reports have raised questions about his trips abroad and whether some were partially paid for by lobbyists and, in one case, a registered foreign agent. House rules prohibit lobbyists and foreign agents from funding congressional trips.

DeLay is a major figure in the GOP, but the findings of investigations into his travels could cost him his leadership post.

Leaders of both parties see ethics as an issue in the 2006 congressional elections. Democrats already are attacking Republicans for what they say have been abuses of power and ethical lapses. Republicans are painting Democrats as willing to destroy the ethics process in their quest to wrest the House majority from the GOP.

The stakes have put enormous pressure on Hastings and the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.).

Pelosi has appealed to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to intervene to resolve the disputes that have paralyzed the committee. But Hastert’s spokesman, Ron Bonjean, said the speaker was determined to leave it to Hastings and Mollohan to find a solution.

The impasse began in January over changes in the committee’s operation rules that the Republican leadership pushed through. Saying the changes would make it nearly impossible to launch investigations, Mollohan refused to allow the committee to organize until the rules were rescinded.

Hastert eventually agreed to roll back the rules, a move accomplished with a House vote in late April.

At the time, most lawmakers believed the committee would soon launch an investigation of DeLay’s trips and take up other ethics complaints against members of both parties.

But Mollohan warned that there remained an outstanding issue: Hastings’ insistence on appointing his chief of staff to head the committee’s professional staff.

Mollohan pointed out that the committee’s rules required the staff be nonpartisan and that each hire be approved by a majority vote of the panel, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

In an interview this week, Mollohan said he would not allow the committee to function until Hastings backed down.

“This is a no-brainer,” Mollohan said.

Hastings did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Of the 20 California Republicans in the House, all but two voted to table the resolution on the staffing dispute. Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) did not vote. All 33 California Democrats voted against tabling the measure.