Thursday, May 05, 2005

Some Smart Moves on House Ethics

Could the tide finally be turning on the nasty ethics battles in the House? Perhaps after the realization yesterday that violations of House rules are neither a one-man nor one-party problem, there is at least a glimmer of hope that a bipartisan agreement can be made to tighten enforcement of ethics standards and remove (maybe temporarily, at least) the stench of corruption from the People's House.

Republican leaders said yesterday they will consider a proposal sponsored by Democrats Marty Meehan of Massachusetts and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois that would more stringently ban payment for congressional trips by lobbyists or foreign agents, and would increase disclosure requirements and fines for violations. In what Mike Allen at the Washington Post calls a "surprising development," Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-OH) expressed support for some of the Markey/Emanuel language, which may move forward rapidly now.

An amnesty is being discussed for "minor violations," ethics committee sources told the Post, "in order to preclude hundreds of potential investigations" against members from both sides of the aisle. Allen reports that the ethics panel "may be asked to issue a new set of rules and then announce that it will not investigate reporting errors made under the old system, such as failing to disclose a trip, erroneously reporting the funding for a trip or missing a filing deadline." Any amnesty, however, would not preclude an investigation into allegations against Tom DeLay, and "[a]ctual violations of the rules, such as accepting a trip from a registered lobbyist, would still be investigated," and a "zero tolerance" policy would be part of any new rules package, sources told Allen.

In other, somewhat related news, two Republicans on the Ethics Committee have recused themselves from any investigation into Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, both of whom contributed $5,000 to DeLay's legal defense fund last year, agreed to take no part in the committee's forthcoming investigation into ethics violations by DeLay. Committee chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) said after the decision "All three of us agree that it's best to remove any doubt about this at the very start of the process."

Of course doubt remains as to the impartiality of the other three Republican members of the ethics panel: Hastings himself, Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, and Judy Biggert of Illinois. All three have "received campaign contributions of varying sizes from political committees run by Mr. DeLay" in the past, but the Times reports "panel members of both parties have said that such ties should not be disqualifying." I guess it's a good thing they decided that, since to have done otherwise would have required a complete change in the panel's membership. In order to remove all question of doubt from an investigation, it probably ought to be handled by an outside investigator, but at the very least, the recusal of Smith and Cole is a good first step.


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