As House Republicans met privately yesterday beneath a huge banner saying "Fulfilling America's Promise," a clerk read the slate of committee chairmen for the new Congress with one conspicuous exception -- the head of the ethics committee.
Aides said that is because Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is hunting for a new chairman to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.). Hefley has fallen out of favor with GOP leaders and is not trusted by them to handle ethics cases that Democrats might bring against Republican lawmakers, according to aides.
One Republican official called Hefley's ouster "a defense measure." Aides said they did not know when the new chairman would be announced. By midweek, Hastert's staff had compiled a list of about 40 candidates.
Another committee chairman who lost his job is Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) on Veterans' Affairs, who had become friendly with veterans and did not always adhere to party dictums on spending. He was replaced by Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), a veteran of the Persian Gulf War who is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. "Throwing more money at this does not mean you are more patriotic," Buyer said.
Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said committee heads have a responsibility to stay on the same page. "We are a team," he said.
Meanwhile, the first official act of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) as House Appropriations Committee chairman was to announce that Frank M. Cushing would become the committee's new staff director, replacing James W. Dyer, who had the job for 10 years. Cushing, now employed by the Washington business consulting firm of Cornerstone Government Affairs, has extensive knowledge of Congress and appropriations. He worked previously under Lewis, directing the subcommittee that oversees spending for veterans, housing and space programs.
The departure of Dyer, 61, who directed the committee for then-Chairmen Bob Livingston (R-La.) and C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), had been expected. He was sometimes a lightning rod for conservatives' criticism of rising spending and "pork barrel" projects. "We've done our best here, and I believe the committee is in good shape," Dyer said. But he added that, after 24 years on the committee, "it's time to move on."
While the leadership announced scores of changes in committee assignments, none has generated as much controversy as the planned change on the ethics committee. The stated reason for Hefley's removal will be that the House parliamentarian has determined that Hefley has served the maximum number of terms that he can under the rules. Hefley and his committee lawyers dispute that. Hastert could grant an exception, although aides said there is no precedent for doing so with the ethics committee.
Hefley, who has held the job since 2001, did not attend the meeting yesterday. He had left Washington Dulles International Airport for Denver half an hour earlier. He said in an interview that he had considered changing his flight, then went ahead.
"They're going to do whatever they want to do," he said. "So I might as well get back to the district and do some work back there."