WASHINGTON -- January 3 -- As Congress gathers Monday for the start of the 109th session, one of the first orders of business will be to consider rules changes that would weaken an already lax ethics enforcement process in the House. The proposed changes could all but eliminate the ability to hold lawmakers accountable for unethical behavior. Common Cause and other watchdog groups will hold a press conference on Jan. 3 that C-SPAN plans to air live to oppose the new rules and draw attention to the changes that Republican leadership wants to make.
The most serious change Congressional leaders reportedly want to make is to weaken a provision in the House Code of Conduct that requires a Member to "
conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives." Instead, they want a narrower rule that would require Members to comply with "applicable laws, regulations and rules." In the past, the broader rule allowed the Ethics Committee to address unethical behavior of Members that did not fall squarely into an existing House rule, including an admonishment last year of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for appearing to link political donations to support for legislation.
Another proposal would allow complaints to die from inaction in the House Ethics Committee unless a majority of the Ethics Committee - which has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans -- agree that an investigation is warranted. Under the current system, an investigation is triggered within 45 days if the committee deadlocks on how to handle a complaint. This change would essentially allow the party in power to decide when a complaint is investigated.
There are also press reports that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (D-Ill) plans to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), the House Ethics Committee chairman who has presided over four admonishments of Rep. DeLay, with Rep. Lamar S. Smith, a Texan like DeLay, who has contributed to DeLay's defense fund.
Common Cause, at its press conference on Monday, January 3rd, will urge House leaders not to retaliate against Hefley or any other Member for doing his or her job on the Ethics Committee.
The move to erode the ethics rules at the opening of the 109th Congress - a vote could come as early as Tuesday -- is a brazen attempt by Republican leaders to make it increasingly difficult for Congress to enforce ethical standards. It sends the message that there is no accountability for unethical behavior in the House.
Common Cause is urging its members to contact their Members of Congress and urge them to vote no on the proposed rules changes outlined above. Nothing less than the integrity of the "People's House" is at stake.