House Republican leaders are urging members to alter one of the chamber's fundamental ethics rules, which would make it harder for lawmakers to discipline a colleague.
The proposed change would essentially negate a general rule of conduct that the ethics committee has often cited in admonishing lawmakers -- including Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- for bringing discredit on the House even if their behavior was not covered by a specific regulation. Backers of the rule, adopted three decades ago, say it is important because the House's conduct code cannot anticipate every instance of questionable behavior that might reflect poorly on the chamber.
Republicans, returning to the Capitol on Tuesday after increasing their House majority by three seats in the Nov. 2 election, also want to relax a restriction on relatives of lawmakers accepting foreign and domestic trips from groups interested in legislation before the House.
A third proposed rule change would allow either party to stop the House ethics committee from investigating a complaint against a member.
Currently, if the panel, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, is deadlocked on a complaint, the matter automatically goes to an investigative subcommittee after 45 days. The proposed change would drop any complaint that is not backed by a majority vote to move it forward.
Government watchdog groups called the proposals startling and unjustified. If the proposed rules are adopted next week as GOP leaders suggest, they would amount to "the biggest backtracking on House ethics rules that we have seen," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.
The proposals are among the nearly two dozen House rule changes being circulated for comment this week by GOP leaders, in preparation for the 109th Congress. The majority Republican caucus plans to discuss the proposals Monday, with the full House scheduled to vote on them Tuesday.
Several Republicans have criticized the ethics process in the wake of three admonitions this year against DeLay (R-Tex.). A House official familiar with the new proposal on the rule about bringing discredit said the ethics committee could not have acted against DeLay if the change had been in place.
A high-ranking House GOP aide, who could speak only on background because of his office's rules, said many lawmakers support the rule change because they do not want the ethics committee to be able to act against a member by saying "we're not sure what he's done wrong, but we don't like it."
The House Code of Conduct requires members and aides to conduct themselves "in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House." Over the years, the ethics committee has cited the provision in, for example, rebuking DeLay for his dealings with a Kansas-based energy company seeking legislative favors. DeLay's actions did not violate a specific law or House rule, the panel concluded this fall, but they reflected poorly on the House.
Under the proposed change, lawmakers would automatically be in compliance with the Code of Conduct if they met the narrower standard of following "applicable laws, regulations and rules."
A House official familiar with the ethics committee's rules and traditions said the proposed change is "an effort to say a member's conduct does not bring discredit on the House unless it violates a specific rule." The official, who cited committee guidelines in demanding anonymity, said this year's admonitions against DeLay would not have been possible under the proposed change because House rules are not specific and numerous enough to bar every instance of dubious behavior that might occur.
DeLay, responding to the ethics committee's findings in September, said that he "would never knowingly violate the rules of the House" and that he deeply believes that members "must conduct ourselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on this institution."
Earlier this year, House Republicans rewrote a party rule so that DeLay can keep his leadership job even if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury. The grand jury has indicted three of his political associates in an investigation of campaign finances related to a House redistricting plan that DeLay helped push through in Texas.