Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Same Old Same Old

I knew it was too good to be true. The House Republicans caved on the DeLay rules, but they went ahead and further weakened the House Ethics Committee.

House Republicans pushed through a significant change in the handling of ethics complaints over strong Democratic objections Tuesday as the 109th Congress convened with a burst of pomp and partisanship.

The House, on a vote of 220 to 195, enacted a change that would effectively dismiss a complaint in the event of a deadlock in the ethics committee, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Its approval came after a retreat by Republicans on Monday on other proposed ethics revisions.

At the heart of both actions were calculations about how far Republicans should go to protect the House majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay. Many party members were unhappy with the ethics committee for the three admonishments it delivered to Mr. DeLay last year. [New York Times]

This got the attention of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Sometime toward the middle of Tuesday afternoon, Republicans in the U.S. House must have started asking themselves: Is Tom DeLay worth it?

Last November, knowing that the House majority leader was under investigation by a Texas grand jury for questionable fundraising practices, GOP leaders quietly changed internal party rules so that DeLay wouldn’t automatically lose his leadership post if indicted. The maneuver blew up in a storm of voter outrage. Then last week, GOP leaders drafted a plan to hamstring the House ethics committee, which had voted bravely to admonish DeLay for three separate conduct violations last year. Late on Monday night, facing an internal rebellion, the leadership had to reverse course on most of that package.

The encouraging side of this sordid episode is that voter outrage still works. Capitol Hill was flooded with angry phone calls on Monday, after Common Cause and other respected watchdog groups held a news conference to spotlight the ethics maneuvers. Rep. Joel Hefley, a Republican who chairs the ethics committee, issued a courageous statement blasting the leadership’s proposal. Even Mark Kennedy, a conservative Republican from Minnesota who is typically loyal to party leaders, said through an aide on Monday that he found the proposed ethics changes “troubling.”

The discouraging side is that DeLay and the other GOP leaders didn’t give up. Yesterday evening they pushed through a separate plan to defang the ethics committee, a change in procedural rules which virtually guarantees that any ethics complaint sent to Hefley’s committee will die a quiet death unless the House majority party says otherwise. “This is just a huge blow to the integrity of the House,” said Mary Boyle of Common Cause.

What’s troubling about Tuesday’s vote is not that it insulates DeLay or demonstrates GOP unity, but that it entrenches a style of politics that has placed the consolidation of party power above conduct of the nation’s business. The result for the typical member of the House is divided loyalty: On one side stands a powerful party leader who can dole out campaign cash and punish independent thinkers; on the other stand voters back home, who are offended by DeLay’s sleazy fundraising and naked power politics. Responsible party leaders don’t force their members into that sort of choice.

Yeah, well, “responsible party leaders” is a sobriquet that doesn’t apply to the gang that blew the budget surplus on tax cuts for the rich, started a war on false evidence, and is now determined to gut Social Security unless their pals on Wall Street get a cut. What really pegs the Irony Meter is that the Republicans are doing exactly what they accused the Democrats of doing during the years that they were in the majority. Pete Townsend was right: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”