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House Speaker Dennis Hastert Seeks to Retract Ethics Rule Changes

April 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Once Republican leaders were convinced it was time to step back from new ethics rules, a repeal was on a fast track toward a full House vote. It could come later tonight. What brought us to this point, and why were the new rules so controversial? To help us sift through today’s events we’re joined on Capitol Hill by Gebe Martinez, congressional reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

Well, Gebe, this story has ricocheted through the Hill from hearing rooms to news conferences, to fax machines. What’s the latest?

GEBE MARTINEZ: Well, what we’re getting ready for tonight, Ray, is a vote on the House floor tonight as you mentioned that’s going to return the House back to the ethics rules that they had in place in the last session. It was during the last session, you’ll remember, that Majority Leader Tom DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee.

And after those admonishments occurred, Speaker Hastert especially was very critical of the ethics process, and he said that the Democrats have politicized it. So he pushed through some rules changes, breaking away from the tradition in recent years to have bipartisan ethics rules. He took GOP written rules to the House in January, they were passed on a partisan vote, and from that point on the Democrats said that they were going to refuse to let the ethics committee organize until they were allowed to go back to the bipartisan rules.

So what’s happened in the last few days is that as the questions about Mr. DeLay’s overseas travel have intensified, really over recent weeks, but more prominently in the last few days, the Republicans have come to the point where they just thought they could not let the ethics committee impasse stay in place. They needed to let the committee get back to work so that Mr. DeLay could go before the committee and present his defense to these charges.

RAY SUAREZ: In mechanical terms, what did these new rules mean for the members sitting on the committee? Five Democrats, five Republicans.

GEBE MARTINEZ: Right. You know, one of the things that the Democrats most fiercely opposed was a rule that would say after 45 days if a majority of the committee cannot agree to continue the investigation, then it disappears.

Under the old rules, which they’re going to be going back to, there’s a process that actually allows the case to linger a little bit longer, and that was one objection that the Republicans had. But basically the case will not disappear now. It will require a vote by the committee whether either to dismiss it or to proceed to an investigative subcommittee level to continue the investigation to a deeper level. And I think that the Democrats felt that under the rules that the Republicans wanted to impose, it would have been very easy for the members to simply let the deadline slide and not have to take any action. So that was the one rule that they were particularly concerned about.

There was another one that would have allowed the member under investigation to have the same attorney as other witnesses in the case. And the Democrats said that that could allow for coordinated testimony. And that was a situation that came up in a case last year, concerning the Medicare vote that the House took, there was a bit ethics investigation about how that vote occurred. So, you know, the Democrats were saying we liked the old rules that were written on a bipartisan basis, let’s go back to that or restore the integrity of the ethics process in the House.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today during a hearing Democrats appeared to welcome the return to the old rules regarding how issues get voted onto the committee process. But earlier in tonight’s broadcast, Representative Molihan of West Virginia was talking about an ongoing debate over staffing. What’s that all about?

GEBE MARTINEZ: Well, when the Republicans decided to change the rules, they also removed from the committee three Republicans who were considered independent minded, including the former chairman. The Republicans said that the chairman’s term was up and he was due to move off anyway. But that still created some controversy, and they also removed some of the key staffers, including the top staffer who was bipartisan staffer.

So what Mr. Molihan was talking about is trying to make sure that the chairman of the committee, Doc Hastings of Washington, is not allowed to bring in a partisan staff director. They feel like if we’re going to have bipartisan rules, we should also have bipartisan staffers. And the rules right now that they’re going to be going back to, the old rules, say that in fact the chairman and the ranking Democrat have to agree on the staff. So what they’re trying to do is get an agreement with Mr. Hastings to say we’re going back to the old rules; that means the old rules that also apply to the staff.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, Gebe, before we go, have Republican members been expressing to you some relief that this is being moved on and that they might be able to get the charges involving Tom DeLay out on the floor and get them dispensed with?

GEBE MARTINEZ: Actually, there was more anger than relief, after the meeting this morning that was held behind closed doors with the speaker. You know, usually the speaker says that he likes to take a vote to the floor when it has the support of a majority of the majority of Republicans. And, you know, the House Republicans are the majority; he wants them to be in full support.

Today they really were very reluctant. They don’t like this; they don’t like looking like they’re in retreat and that their handing the Democrats a political victory. But they are doing this because they’re following the leadership of Speaker Hastert, and they do agree that if they can at least diffuse this issue a little bit, they take less than a little bit of the Democrats’ political weaponry that they have, and even though Mr. DeLay will still be an issue, at least the ethics committee process is not.

RAY SUAREZ: Gebe Martinez, thanks for being with us.

GEBE MARTINEZ: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, let’s put this latest partisan wrangling over ethics into a larger context. Here to help us with that is Richard Cohen, a longtime congressional reporter. He’s the co-editor of National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics.

Richard, the official name is the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

RICHARD COHEN: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it always in this spotlight and often a tense place, of wrestling matches?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, any time issues come up that deal with the ethics of members of Congress and the Senate has its own ethics committee, it’s inevitable that members will get pretty anxious about it.

But what has not been the case in the past is that we have not seen this kind of partisan warfare take place, as openly as has been the case in the last few months on the organization of the committee, both the changes in procedures that Gebe just described, and the issues, the charges that have been lobbed back and forth particularly about Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a committee of longstanding tradition in the House? And has it always had the form it has now?

RICHARD COHEN: The House as part of its reform movement of an earlier period in the 1960s created this so-called Standards of Official Conduct Committee. And it had relatively weak powers when it was first created in the 1960s, and it operated in a fairly awkward fashion.

Over the years it’s been strengthened, some of the rules have been modified to create a fair process and a tough process to pursue violations. I should say before the 1960s, before the House had an ethics committee, if there were violations of conduct then the only recourse would be for law enforcement, prosecution, through the criminal division of the Justice Department, or local district attorneys.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a busy place? I mean, do committee members have a lot on their plate or are there peaks and valleys?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, they generally don’t tell us how busy it is, most of their work is done behind closed doors. They typically don’t even tell reporters or the general public that they’re meeting; and they’ll simply issue a statement at the end of a proceeding, and the proceeding may go for weeks, months, even a couple years at times. So they don’t provide much in the way of briefing.

The members who serve on it, it’s regarded as the equivalent of being sent off on a terrible assignment, members hate doing this, they hate having to judge their peers, their colleagues, in one party or the other. So it’s regarded as kind of, whoever has to serve on the committee generally has drawn the short straw.

RAY SUAREZ: For all the reluctance to serve on the committee, has it enjoyed some time in the spotlight, and has it collected some pretty big names that it’s brought down over the years?

RICHARD COHEN: No question, that House Speaker, in the 1980s, Jim Wright, Democrat from Texas, essentially was forced to resign as a result of a lengthy investigation of a book deal and some other personal finances; that investigation found that he committed 69 violations, according to the investigation that was done by the committee and the unanimous action of the committee.

So Jim Wright resigned as speaker and then as a result of a complaint that, ironically, a complaint that was brought by Newt Gingrich, then a back bench Republican in the House, what became ironic was that in the 1990s Newt Gingrich became the Republican Speaker of the House and then the ethics committee investigated his personal finances, found a violation or two, and while he didn’t step down immediately, the bipartisan judgment that Gingrich violated the ethics rules and the committee reprimanded him for those violations, weakened him and two years later he resigned under fire from within his party.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned earlier that the committee does a lot of its work out of the public view. But still is that committee able to be swayed by public opinion? Is the interest, for instance, in a case like Tom DeLay’s one that’s likely to be felt very much inside that committee room?

RICHARD COHEN: Sure, they’re all members – they’re all elected public officials, they’re all members of Congress. And there have been suggestions that retired judges or other people should serve as the ethics committee of the House, but the House and the Senate separately have insisted they want to judge their own members. In fact there’s a provision in the Constitution that says that the House and Senate have the authority to judge their own members.

And I think, to some extent even though it’s an unpleasant assignment, members would rather be put in this position of judging their own, their colleagues, rather than have the judgments made from the outside. As we see now, obviously, some of these ethics charges that are being made are getting a lot of attention. And so the big question now is, now presumably that the committee is going to be reorganized and Republican leaders have said that they will investigate Tom DeLay so, now we await that investigation, we don’t know how long — what the charges will be, the nature of the review, how long will it take. We really as a result of the apparent agreement today, we’re really just now at the start of the process.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Cohen, thanks for being with us.