As the 109th Congress opens this week, Republicans are
considering rule changes that will rein in the ethics process in the
House and curb the minority's capacity to derail judicial
nominations in the Senate.
If passed, these changes would signal how a GOP majority that
gained seats in the 2004 vote plans to use its new clout to protect
its leaders and move the president's agenda.
But they also risk ratcheting partisan animosities in both houses
even higher and opening the Republican leadership to charges of
overreaching and abuse of power - the themes that GOP insurgents
used to topple 40 years of Democratic control of the House a decade
Less than a third of the current Republican Conference were in
the House when Democrats controlled the chamber with an iron fist.
That compares with nearly half of current Democrats. "Most
Republicans weren't there when Democrats overreached and became
politically tone deaf," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for
the Cook Political Report in Washington.
Moreover, with an incumbent reelection rate of 98 to 99 percent,
"the great majority of Republicans aren't going to have a
competitive race again," she says. "Theoretically, it's a dangerous
In a meeting Monday night, the House Republican caucus is to vote
on new rules that raise the threshold for ethics cases. According to
a draft circulated to GOP members, these could include:
* Exempting lawmakers from the standard that a member should
"conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect
creditably on the House," so long as the lawmaker has otherwise
followed "applicable laws, regulations, and rules."
* Ending an investigation if there is a tie vote. (The House
ethics committee is evenly divided between Democrats and
* Allowing a member to respond to an admonishment before it is
The most obvious object of such changes is House majority leader
Tom DeLay, who was admonished by the House ethics panel three times
last year and faces a possible criminal indictment by a grand jury
Last month, the Republican caucus reversed its own 2003 rule that
would require leaders to resign, if criminally indicted. (House
Democrats have no comparable rule, although they promise to pass
one.) That meeting, which went on for hours, ended in a decision not
to record the vote - a sign of how controversial the majority leader
is becoming within his own party.
In October, the ethics panel admonished Mr. DeLay for the
appearance of favorable treatment to a lobbyist, misuse of a federal
agency in a Texas political dispute, and an "improper" offer to a
colleague in exchange for a vote. Another inquiry, still pending,
involves possible campaign-finance violations in Texas. Three close
aides of DeLay were indicted in Texas on Sept. 21 for misuse of
House leaders who are proposing the rule changes insist they are
needed to protect the process. …