By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005
House Republican leaders, hoping to head off a war of ethics charges that could leave both parties wounded, said yesterday that they will consider tightening the rules on lobbying and travel and possibly grant amnesty for minor violations in order to preclude hundreds of potential investigations.
A flurry of moves by the party's leaders, some behind the scenes and some before cameras, coincides with rising public scrutiny of the ethical practices of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other lawmakers. Some Republican lawmakers and aides say privately that they are concerned that a possible voter backlash could hurt the majority party most.
Four aides close to the House GOP leadership said the ethics committee 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.
The officials stressed that the proposed rule changes and amnesty would not alter plans for the House ethics committee to launch an investigation of reports that lobbyists paid for overseas travel by DeLay in violation of House rules.
Actual violations of the rules, such as accepting a trip from a registered lobbyist, would still be investigated, the aides said. Once new rules are in place, the Republicans said, the ethics committee would adopt a "zero tolerance" approach to future violations.
"It is becoming obvious that there was a chronic disregard for the letter of the rules," a senior House Republican aide said. "The ethics committee could be looking at hundreds of cases."
Another official described the situation as "a circular firing squad," with each party in position to harm the other party's members. One GOP chairman called the current situation "mutually assured destruction."
The chamber's ethics committee, which has not operated for the past four months because of a partisan standoff, voted 10 to 0 yesterday to begin work. The chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee will conduct a preliminary review before deciding whether to formally launch an investigation of DeLay's overseas travel and his ties to Jack Abramoff and other Washington lobbyists. Such an investigation likely would take at least several months to complete, GOP and Democratic aides said.
Also yesterday, the Hill newspaper reported that five members of Congress traveled to Ireland in 2003 at the expense of a lobbying firm, which could be a violation of congressional rules. The paper said disclosure forms report that a lobbying firm, Kessler & Associates Business Services Inc., paid for travel to a four-day international trade seminar by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), then-Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Reps. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.).
Yesterday's moves followed the decision by GOP leaders last week to repeal a series of rule changes they had made in January that had caused Democrats to hold up formation of the ethics committee.
Two ethics committee members -- Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) -- announced that they will recuse themselves from any investigation of DeLay because of their past contributions to the majority leader's legal defense fund. Ethics committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said those contributions "raise doubts -- however unwarranted -- about whether those members would be able to judge fairly allegations of impropriety against Mr. DeLay."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he wants the ethics committee to "look at the whole travel issue" and provide "good guidance" for members about future trips. He said he thinks corporations still should be allowed to pay for some trips because the government does not have enough money to pay for all the worthy travel by members. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said last week that Congress should consider a ban on such travel.
DeLay, facing a barrage of questions about his travel, said that the rules have been unclear and that he wants the ethics committee to issue more precise guidelines, and perhaps institute a system for approving trips before members take them. DeLay said his internal investigation of his files had turned up no problems.
"Unlike it's being reported, we have done everything by the book," DeLay said.
In a surprise development, House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) said he agrees with some of the proposals in a plan to restructure lobbying rules that was drafted by two Democrats. Ney, whose committee would take up the bill, has been the subject of news stories about his cooperation with Abramoff, a lobbyist under criminal and congressional investigation.
Ney said he welcomes the ideas offered by Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), which would curb the ability of lobbyists and foreign agents to pay for travel by lawmakers, and increase disclosure requirements. Fines for violating disclosure laws would be doubled to $100,000.