Reform Groups Urge Congress Not to Weaken House Ethics Rules

 

Dec. 16, 2004

Reform Groups Urge Congress
Not to Weaken House Ethics Rules

Proposals to Make It Harder to File Ethics Complaints, Potential Retribution Against the Ethics Committee That Scolded Tom DeLay, Taint the New Congress

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Congressional Ethics Coalition – a nonpartisan, ideologically diverse group of eight government watchdog organizations – today released the following statement about potential congressional rules changes that would dramatically weaken the ethics oversight process in the U.S. House of Representatives. The statement also addresses possible retribution against sitting members of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

 The coalition includes Public Citizen, Campaign Legal Center, Judicial Watch, Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility for Ethics in Washington, Democracy 21 and Public Campaign. The new  Congress is expected to take up ethics rules when members return on Jan. 4.

Joint Statement

 The House ethics rules are designed to protect the integrity of the institution and to promote public confidence in both the Congress and its Members.   To the chamber’s credit, after seven years of failing to properly enforce those rules, the House Ethics Committee recently took some admirable, difficult steps when it investigated and ultimately admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for three separate instances of ethical misconduct

 Unfortunately, published reports indicate that the Committee’s commendable action may prompt the House leadership to take another giant step backwards.   We strongly urge Members to reject any moves to further cripple the already weakened system of ethics oversight.  Only by strengthening the current rules, and by enforcing them, can Members reestablish the necessary public faith in the integrity of Congress.

 Several reports have indicated that the leadership may include changes in the chamber’s ethics oversight process as part of the rules package Members must adopt at the beginning of the 109th Congress.  The November 15 edition of CQ Today indicated that these changes, advocated by House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, would be designed to “curtail the ethics committee.”  A New York Times editorial on November 19 noted that a letter Mr. Dreier sent to all House members on October 8 signaled his intention “to make it even harder than it already is for members to file an ethics complaint, and for outside groups to be heard in the process.” 

 The Hill further reported on December 15 that the changes under consideration could “render ethics complaints less damaging by making it easier for the committee to dismiss them and reducing the influence of outside groups that want to have lawmakers sanctioned.”
 

    Further, on November 18, the Ethics Committee sent a letter to Rep. Chris Bell, the Member who filed a complaint against Rep. DeLay, which will almost certainly have a chilling effect on future complaints by Members.   The statement criticized the complaint Rep. Bell filed for containing “excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in press releases and other public statements.”  A statement to all Members released the same day indicated that “objectionable material” in a complaint could also be the basis for “initiation of disciplinary action against a Member who makes the filing.”  However it may have been intended, the letter and statement read as a threat against Members who wish to bring legitimate matters to the attention of the Committee.

 Reports have also stated that the leadership may retaliate against members of the Ethics Committee, including Chairman Joel Hefley, for admonishing Mr. DeLay.   Although the Committee – comprised of five Democrats and five Republicans – acted unanimously in each of those instances, a November 4 article in Roll Call states that the admonishments angered House Republicans, and that as a result, “the feeling within Republican leadership circles is that [House Speaker Dennis] Hastert will go with another choice in the next Congress. . . . ‘It’s fair to say that [Hefley] won’t return as chairman of ethics,’ said a top House GOP aide.” 

 The Hill also noted on December 15 that Speaker Hastert may replace Mr. Hefley because “his handling of the complaint against DeLay infuriated many House Republicans,” also noting that Mr. Hefley says he was threatened by colleagues in response to the Committee’s actions.

 These threats 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, 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, the House should reject any attempt to change the ethics rules in a way that discourages Members from filing valid ethics complaints. 

 Under current rules, only Members may file complaints against fellow Members.   It is therefore essential that they remain free to do so without additional hindrances, burdens or threats of reprisal.  While the concern that frivolous, politically damaging complaints might be filed is understandable, the Committee is already empowered to deal with such circumstances.   The existing rules – when used judiciously and appropriately – gives the Committee the authority it needs to dispense with inappropriate complaints.

 Further, any changes to the House ethics rules, including the procedure for the filing and handling of complaints, should take place in the open, after public hearings, with adequate opportunity for review and debate.

Second, members of the leadership must not retaliate against Members of the Ethics Committee when the panel determines that a colleague has breached the ethics rules. 

Retaliation against Ethics Committee members for responsibly doing their job can only discourage Members from fulfilling their responsibilities.   And retaliation – particularly when, as occurred this year, the panel’s Republicans and Democrats act unanimously – can only further diminish public confidence in the House by painting it as hopelessly politicized and self-dealing.

Third, and finally, outside groups should be allowed to file ethics complaints.

 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.

 As the furor over Rep. Bell’s complaint makes clear, such action by Members will almost certainly continue to be the exception, not the rule.   Members are understandably reluctant to sit in judgment on their colleagues – and will only become more so if the leadership is allowed to make the practice more difficult and potentially retributive.

 It is therefore essential that the House change its rules to once again allow outside organizations to bring complaints.   We note again that Committee already had the power to deal with frivolous complaints, whether by outside groups or Members.

 There are other measures the House should ultimately consider, including a mechanism for determining when the Committee should turn to an outside counsel for assistance, and the possibility of an independent office made up of non-Members that could objectively advise the Committee on ethics matters. 

 The three points we highlight above, however, are essential if the House is to continue moving towards a functioning system of ethics oversight worthy of the public’s trust.

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