WASHINGTON - The House opened the new congressional session yesterday by voting to make it harder for the Ethics Committee to initiate investigations of members, as Republican leaders salvaged one key element of a discarded plan for easing ethics standards.
Under the new rule, a majority of the Ethics Committee's members will have to vote to launch an investigation. Previously, an investigation could proceed even if the committee - with five Republicans and five Democrats - was deadlocked.
The change could mean that ethics investigations, rare now, will become even rarer because they will require a vote in favor of an investigation by a member of the prospective target's own party.
The action came as Republican leaders were preparing an especially ambitious agenda for the session, capitalizing on a re-elected president and larger GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate.
The rule change was part of a package drafted by the chamber's GOP majority. The vote, strictly along party lines, was 220-195.
Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Rules Committee, defended the rule change, saying it would "restore the presumption of innocence in our process."
The change, however, came under attack from Democrats and government watchdog groups.
"We have been told that the most egregious attempts to weaken the ethics system have been abandoned. I beg to differ," said House Democratic whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, adding, "The rule before us will have a concrete, demonstrable effect on every ethics complaint filed from this day forward."
Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog organization Democracy 21, complained that the change would "seriously cripple the ability of the Ethics Committee to do its job."
A coalition of congressional watchdog groups, including the citizens' advocacy organization Common Cause and the conservative Judicial Watch, said in a letter to lawmakers that changing the rule to require majority approval for an investigation would "sharply increase the incentive for partisan, deadlock votes on the committee, and would go a long way toward guaranteeing that most ethics complaints would be dead on arrival."
Common Cause President Chellie Pingree said that under the new rule, "if the parties enforce discipline, no ethics complaint will ever see the light of day."
Watchdog groups also expressed concern about reports that House GOP leaders might remove Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, known formally as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
A decision could come today.
House Republicans sought to blunt criticism of the rule change with their decision Monday to drop another controversial ethics proposal. It would have weakened a 36-year-old rule that allows complaints to be filed against members for conduct that creates the appearance of corruption, although it might break no law.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.