Another Ethics Standoff

Sunday, May 29, 2005

In order for the [Ethics] Committee to function effectively, its professional staff must operate in a completely nonpartisan manner, and each member of the staff must have the trust and confidence of all Committee members. A nonpartisan staff is also essential to engendering confidence, both within and outside the House, in the impartiality of the Committee as a whole.

-- Report of the House Ethics Reform

Task Force, June 1997

THIS MIGHT sound obvious, but when the workings of the House ethics committee were overhauled in 1997, the standard on staff represented an important, and badly needed, change from the previous setup, which essentially let the majority pick the staff. The new rules provided that the staff "is to be assembled and retained as a professional, non-partisan staff"; required that "all staff members" be appointed with the agreement of both sides; and prohibited ethics staff members from engaging in partisan political activity.

Unfortunately, the new chairman of the ethics panel, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), is taking steps that could undermine the principle of nonpartisanship. In one of his first official acts as chairman, Mr. Hastings fired John Vargo, the committee's chief counsel and staff director. Mr. Hastings had a right to say he wanted a new aide at the top -- a person who would have to be chosen with the agreement of the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.). But this move, and the blunt manner of its execution, sent a chilling signal that the committee's staff members make controversial recommendations at their peril.

Now, having been stalled for months in a fight over its rules -- a dispute finally resolved when House Republicans wisely agreed last month to retreat from the changes they had unilaterally imposed -- the ethics panel is mired in a standoff over staffing. Mr. Hastings wants to redo the committee's organizational chart to separate the jobs of chief counsel and staff director; he would have the chief counsel report to two staff directors, one each for the majority and the minority. He is seeking to install his longtime chief of staff, Ed Cassidy, in the role of majority staff director, essentially overseeing committee operations. Mr. Mollohan has objected, saying that this arrangement violates the principle of nonpartisanship and the requirement that both sides agree on staff hires.

Proponents of the change note, correctly, that committee rules permit the chairman and ranking minority member each to appoint a staffer from their personal offices "to perform service for the committee." But that sensible rule (those at the committee's helm ought to be able to rely on a trusted staffer for advice) wasn't meant to be a mechanism to erode the even more sensible proposition that the staff running the committee should be nonpartisan, selected in a bipartisan manner. Mr. Hastings has said that Mr. Cassidy wouldn't be involved in the investigative side of the committee's work; this is commendable but not entirely satisfactory, since the counsel would still report to Mr. Cassidy.

Given the history of the past few months, and the likely imminent investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the last thing the ethics panel needs is a whiff of additional politicization.

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