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U.S. House Should Strengthen, Not Weaken, Ethics Rules on Jan. 4

Jan. 3, 2005

U.S. House Should Strengthen, Not Weaken, Ethics Rules on Jan. 4

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to debate proposals from Republican leaders that will dramatically weaken existing ethical standards and long-standing procedures for pursuing ethics violations by members of Congress.

If these changes to House rules are adopted, they will turn a dysfunctional ethics system into a virtually non-functioning ethics system.

The Congressional Ethics Coalition, a non-partisan coalition of eight government watchdog groups, is here to say that this travesty must not succeed. We call upon members of both parties in Congress to reject any weakening of ethics rules by House leaders. Instead, the House should strengthen the ethical accountability of members.

Partisanship may have its place on the House floor when it comes to the great debates about issues and priorities. But partisanship should play no role in ensuring that members of Congress act in an honest and forthright manner, or in ensuring that strong and fair procedures are in place for investigating possible ethics violations.

Unfortunately, there is a partisan and backroom process under way in the House right now to gut the ethics system. Two key measures likely to be considered will:

  • Remove the primary standard used to determine if a member of Congress has violated ethics rules, and that is the appearance of corruption. Currently, it is a violation of House ethics rules to act in such a way that creates the appearance of corruption or reflects poorly on the House. This is the standard the ethics committee typically uses when sanctioning members for ethical violations. It is also the standard it used in two of the three recent admonishments of Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In one instance, DeLay made an offer to Rep. Nick Smith that he would endorse his son, who was seeking to replace Smith, if Smith voted for – rather than against – the Medicare prescription drug bill, as he did. In the other instance, DeLay was admonished for setting up a golf outing with energy company lobbyists when the House was considering energy legislation. The leadership proposal to be voted on tomorrow would eliminate this fundamental ethics standard and make only illegal activity a violation of ethics rules.
  • Deadlock the ability of the ethics committee to investigate many complaints. The ethics committee is evenly split between Republican and Democratic members, which can lead to a deadlock on whether to investigate a complaint. Fortunately, under the current rules, if no action is taken within 45 days of receiving a complaint, an investigation by an ethics subcommittee is automatically triggered. The proposed change would require an affirmative majority vote to conduct an investigation. This is a recipe for deadlock and gridlock of the ethics system.
  • There should be no punishment of ethics committee members who admonished Majority Leader DeLay for ethics transgressions. After being threatened by some members of the House for admonishing DeLay, ethics committee Chairman Joel Hefley now finds himself negotiating with House leaders over whether he can stay on the committee as chairman. Other members of the ethics committee may also face retribution. This is a mean-spirited and vindictive act by House leaders seeking to punish those who dare stand up to them to do what is in the best interests of the American people.

Our coalition also stands united around two other ethics issues:

  • Outside groups should be allowed to file legitimate ethics complaints. If members of Congress are going to be intimidated against enforcing ethics rules, then it is all the more important that outside groups be allowed into the process. This is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Senate. It used to be a right in the U.S. House until it was taken away in the late 1990s. It is a right that should be restored tomorrow.

    We will now hear from other members of the Congressional Ethics Coalition.