A dispute between the parties has shut down the House ethics committee for the second time this year, and lawmakers said that it could be months -- and perhaps next year -- before the panel will decide whether to examine the activities of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) or others accused of violating restrictions on lobbying and travel.
DeLay has retained Richard Cullen of Richmond, a former U.S. attorney and Virginia attorney general, to represent him in dealings with the ethics committee and, if necessary, the Justice Department.
"My job is to make sure that people are focusing on the facts and not politics," Cullen said yesterday.
DeLay's emerging strategy, other advisers said, is to argue that the ethics panel should not focus on him alone, but should conduct a broad investigation of members' compliance with travel rules, including the many Democrats who did not file required disclosure forms.
Democrats are hoping to gain political advantage from investigations into DeLay's activities and overseas travel and his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Yet, many Democratic lawmakers also benefited from Abramoff's political operations or took overseas trips that are now attracting media attention.
The ethics committee, the House's mechanism for enforcing rules for members, has operated for exactly one day since the 109th Congress convened in early January. In May, after Republicans broke an impasse with Democrats by backing off an effort to change the rules for investigations, the committee voted to organize for the year.
But it has not met since then. No session is scheduled, and both parties say any investigation is months off. The latest logjam relates to a decision by Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) to try to name his 10-year chief of staff, Ed Cassidy, as a co-director of the committee staff. But the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), said the rules give Democrats a say in the appointment, and they oppose Cassidy. Democrats and Republicans each hold five of the committee's 10 seats, making it the only House panel on which Democrats can block majority-party actions.
In a sign that both parties are leery of the outcome of an ethics war, not a single complaint has been filed with the ethics committee by either side despite a torrent of revelations about questionable conduct by lawmakers.
The staffing dispute concerns a rule of the ethics panel governing the hiring of the committee staff. The rule specifies that the staff will be nonpartisan and chosen by a majority vote of the committee. But in what Democrats consider an effort to circumvent that requirement, Hastings has cited another provision of the rule that allows the chairman and ranking minority member to each name one staff member without the other side's concurrence.
Hastings's proposal would give equal authority to his and Mollohan's designated co-directors.
Mollohan said in an interview that he will not compromise, and that for Republicans to get what they are demanding, they will have to get Congress to change the rule. "All you need is literacy to understand this rule," he said. "I cannot make it complicated."
But DeLay said at a news conference yesterday that Democrats were politicizing the ethics process by trying to push the probe into next year as part of a strategy to use ethics as an issue in the midterm elections.
"They don't want an ethics committee," he said. "They would like to drag this out and have me and others before the ethics committee in an election year. . . . Yet no one seems to want to notice."
Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Democrats "have every motivation in the world" to keep the panel from functioning.
"The national media has convicted a member of our leadership without giving him due process," he said. "What the Democrats fear is that if the ethics committee gets together, they might be able to successfully embarrass a couple of our guys, but I think we'll be able to get 10 to 15 of theirs who we know have some very interesting issues that need to be discussed."
Mollohan, a corporate lawyer whose father was a congressman from West Virginia for 18 years, said that the possibility of a political motivation for the stalemate "has not occurred to me," and that the accusation "says more about the people who are suggesting it than it does about me."
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said: "Democrats want to follow the rules; Republicans don't."
Hastings was stung by news stories that said he was named to head the panel in February because the GOP leadership considered him more pliant than his predecessor, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who presided last fall when the committee admonished DeLay three times for his official conduct.
So Hastings successfully argued for a larger budget for the committee and an expansion of its staff from 13 to 19. Because of vacancies, the current staff is 10, and officials in both parties said it will take months of advertising and interviewing to bring it to full strength after the two parties resolve their differences.
Cullen, 57, heads the team on white-collar and government investigations at the McGuireWoods law firm in Richmond. He was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and was appointed attorney general by George Allen, then the governor and now U.S. senator, in 1997 to fill out a term.
Cullen joins a legal team that includes Bobby R. Burchfield, who oversees legal affairs affecting DeLay; Edwin R. Bethune, a former House member from Arkansas; Don McGahn, general counsel of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and Barbara Comstock of Blank Rome, who works on communications strategy and rapid response.