After delays, House ethics panel ready for investigations

Some say committee will have little influence because of partisan fights

July 23, 2005|By Sam Singer | Sam Singer,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - After months of partisan bickering, the House ethics committee is up and running, meaning a host of lawmakers could find themselves under investigation and Democrats could find ammunition for their denunciations of a Republican "culture of corruption," which they are making a central theme of the 2006 congressional elections.

But just what role the newly reactivated ethics committee will play in Capitol Hill's hot-blooded political climate remains to be seen. Some say the panel will remain toothless, hamstrung by rules designed to protect lawmakers, while others foresee a return to the tit-for-tat ethical wrangling of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"This could easily turn out to be another era defined by the criminalization of policy differences," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "Ethics issues tend to be used as a club in larger political warfare."

Democrats are already clamoring for official investigations into the financial activities of a number of House Republicans, most notably Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. For their part, Republicans have assumed a defensive posture, threatening retaliation for complaints filed by the opposition.

The party in control often finds itself facing more ethics complaints, partly because powerful politicians may have more opportunities for graft and partly because they make more inviting targets. The Democrats faced a similar raft of complaints before they lost control of the House in 1994.

Still, both parties are treading cautiously, aware of the perils of an escalating ethics dispute to their parties and to Congress' dismal public standing.

The ethics committee - formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct - has always been a venue for explosive allegations, playing a role in the downfall of such stars as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican. Because of the sensitivity of its subject matter, it is equally split between Republicans and Democrats, unlike other committees.

The panel's paralysis began in January when Republicans imposed rule changes, including letting House leaders keep their positions even if they are indicted. That prompted a Democratic boycott of the committee and set off a political furor.

After Republicans backed down, another standoff kept the committee out of service for two more months, as the committee chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, sought to install a staff director over the objections of Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the committee's top Democrat. The committee has held one hearing in half a year, and even that one broke down in bickering.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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