WASHINGTON -- February 4 -- The following is a statement of Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer on 'Bloodless Coup' at the House Ethics Committee:
The House Republican leadership continued its efforts to shut down ethics enforcement in the House this week with a "bloodless coup" at the House Ethics Committee.
After House Republican leaders put through a change in the ethics rules last month to make it much harder to get ethics complaints considered by the Ethics Committee, House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Wednesday, in effect, fired the Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefley for doing his job.
Hefley was replaced by Representative Doc Hastings, who was a member of the Ethics Committee and is considered to be close to Speaker Hastert.
According to yesterday's Washington Post, Hefley believes he was removed because he was too independent. "There is 'a bad perception out there that there was a purge in the committee and that people were put in that would protect our side of the aisle better than I did,'" Hefley said, according to the Post. "Nobody should be there to protect anybody. They should be there to protect the integrity of the institution," Hefley stated, according to the article.
In addition to removing Hefley, Speaker Hastert dropped two of the four other Republicans on the Ethics Committee this week. Amazingly, with an important ethics charge still pending at the Ethics Committee against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Speaker Hastert named Representatives Lamar Smith and Tom Cole to the Committee -- both of whom reportedly have made substantial contributions to DeLay's legal defense fund during the past seven months.
It is extraordinarily inappropriate and a clear conflict of interest for Smith and Cole to serve on the Ethics Committee under these circumstances. With well over 200 House Republicans to choose from, the appointment of these two Representatives to the Ethics Committee sends a loud and clear message to the American people that House Republican leaders have no interest in treating ethics matters seriously and no concern about the House's public credibility.
Meanwhile the "bloodless coup" at the House Ethics Committee apparently is not over. Ethics Committee staff appear to be next in line for ouster.
An article in yesterday's Roll Call states, "According to GOP sources, the Republican leadership may also seek the ouster of John Vargo, the panel's staff director." The article says, "'I wouldn't be surprised to see Vargo replaced,' said a senior House GOP aide. 'He's to blame for the mess, too. He's the top professional staffer on the committee, and they were out of control last year.'"
The message from that statement is clear and outrageous: the unanimous and bipartisan House Ethics Committee was "out of control" last year because they admonished Representative DeLay for ethical improprieties in three different instances.
Presumably this means the Ethics Committee was out of Hastert and DeLay's control, which is precisely how it should be. If Majority Leader DeLay wants to stop the House Ethics Committee from holding him accountable for unethical conduct, he ought to stop engaging in unethical conduct.
The performance of the House Republican leadership in this Congress on ethics matters is an affront to the American people and an irresponsible disregard of their institutional responsibilities.
Without enforcement of the ethics rules, there are no ethics rules. Instead the House is left with the lowest common- denominator behavior setting the ethics standards for all House Members.
This cannot be accepted.
Democracy 21, working with others, will fight every step of the way the effort by House Republican leaders to do away with ethics enforcement, and thereby ethics standards, in the House.