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Democrats Block Ethics Panel Over Rewritten Rules

Times Staff Writer

Just as new controversy has erupted over trips taken by congressional Democrats and Republicans -- including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) -- the workings of the chamber’s ethics committee have been brought to a halt.

Democrats are refusing to accept new rules for the panel written by House Republicans, saying the edicts would gut the committee’s ability to conduct investigations. The Democrats say they will block the committee from functioning until the rules are rescinded.

The leader of the Democratic revolt is a soft-spoken West Virginian with a reputation for bipartisanship. On Friday, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan said the Republicans had left him no choice but to thwart the committee’s operations.

“The rules, each of them separately and together, seriously undermine the ability of the ethics committee to do its job,” said Mollohan, the panel’s ranking Democrat. “The rules are seriously flawed and extremely mischievous to the ability of the ethics committee to efficiently and responsibly discharge its duties.”

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Congressional watchdog groups praised the move and said they hoped it would force Republicans to negotiate new rules with the Democrats.

But Republicans criticized the decision as a publicity stunt, and indicated that they were in no hurry to get the committee functioning.

“The Democrats have chosen to shut down the ethics committee,” said Ron Bonjean, press secretary for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “The only way to get around this impasse is for the Democrats to put the ethics process above partisan politics.”

The roots of the conflict reach back to the last congressional session, when the ethics committee issued three reprimands of DeLay for misconduct stemming from aggressive political tactics.

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The House GOP leadership subsequently replaced the chairman of the ethics committee, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), and appointed three new members to the 10-member panel, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. The new members were seen as loyal to DeLay and the House’s other Republican leaders.

At the same time, the House leadership rewrote the committee’s rules, which were passed on a party-line vote in January. The new rules allow the committee to launch an investigation only with the consent of a majority of its members -- meaning a lawmaker would have to cross party lines to investigate a member of his own party. The new rules also limit the committee to 45 days to decide whether a complaint warrants investigation, and allows it to let the complaint die by taking no action.

That change, Mollohan said, “means that in tough cases, all members would have to do is sit on their hands for 45 days, then allow a case to be dismissed” without having to vote on it, as the previous rules required.

Bonjean dismissed the objections by the Democrats, saying they were seeking to block the will of the House.

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The impasse spotlights the House’s troubled ethics process at a time when DeLay finds himself embroiled in new questions about groups that have paid for some of his travel. It also comes as three men involved with a fundraising committee associated with DeLay are being tried in Texas on charges of improperly using corporate contributions to help elect a Republican majority to the Texas Legislature in 2002.

The Washington Post reported last week that DeLay and at least seven other House members from both parties took trips paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a group registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. House rules forbid members from accepting gifts from organizations registered as foreign agents. DeLay’s office has said he did not know of the group’s registration.

A recent report in the National Journal probed a DeLay trip to Scotland that the majority leader said was financed by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank. The Journal article raised questions about whether Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who is the subject of several influence-peddling investigations, might have paid for part of the trip.

Common Cause, a watchdog group, urged Congress to resolve the impasse.

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“The Ethics committee must investigate the allegations that have been raised recently regarding travel expenses and Democratic and Republican members of Congress and staff,” said Chellie Pingree, the group’s president. “But before that can happen, the process must be fixed.”

DeLay’s office declined to comment on the ethics committee’s problems. The office of Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who replaced Hefley as the panel’s chairman, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

House Democratic leaders blamed the impasse on the GOP’s desire to protect DeLay.

“The simple truth is that the Republican leadership resented the committee’s carefully reasoned decision last year to admonish one of its own and has resolved to ensure it never happens again, even as new reports raise additional ethical issues,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, (D-Md.), the House Minority Whip.

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Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), who for years served as the panel’s ranking Democrat, said Republicans crossed a line when they rewrote the rules without consulting Democrats. “The Republicans made a terrible mistake,” he said. “They have to undo that.”

Mollohan has sponsored a resolution that would cancel the Republican rule changes. And he expressed confidence that a compromise can be reached on the issue. But he said that Democrats would not allow the committee to resume its work until the rules were rewritten.

“If you aren’t going to create an ethics committee right, don’t create it at all,” he said. “Otherwise, it is a great farce on the body, not to mention the American people.”


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