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HOW THEY SEE IT Credibility gap in Congress must be closed



Published: Fri, April 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JOEL HEFLEY and ALAN B. MOLLOHAN

WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON -- In the last Congress, we were honored to serve as chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and we were proud of its work. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of our fellow members, the committee functioned as intended, taking up difficult issues in a calm, deliberative manner and making decisions that in nearly every instance had the support of all committee members, Republicans and Democrats alike.

But in the present Congress, a number of changes have been made to the committee's rules, and we are deeply concerned that they may spell the end of a credible, effective ethics process in the House. A crucial step in putting the process back on track is to repeal these changes, and we are cosponsoring a resolution to do so.

Why is repealing these new rules so important? There are two major reasons.

UThere cannot be a credible ethics process without genuine bipartisanship, yet these changes were made without consulting the House minority and were passed on a straight party-line vote.

If the ethics process is dominated by the majority party -- whichever party that might be -- it will have no credibility. It will almost certainly degenerate into a tool of partisan warfare and become a farce.

That is why the ethics committee membership has always been equally divided between the parties. In the conduct of committee business, there is no majority or minority side. Obviously, this alone does not guarantee that partisanship won't enter the deliberations. But such a structure is the cornerstone of a credible ethics process: It guarantees that no action will be taken without at least some degree of support from both parties.

It should go without saying that bipartisanship must also be present in the making of the committee's rules. Until now, this fundamental point has been recognized in the House -- no matter which party was in the majority. The committee was created in 1968 through the work of a panel of six Democrats and six Republicans. And when major rules changes were made in 1989 and 1997, they were based on recommendations by panels drawn equally from both parties.

The contrast between the procedures used in the past and those used this year could not be more stark. Not only were Democrats not consulted on the latest rules changes, but in fact no one on the ethics committee was consulted. It's not clear who was consulted or whether the meanings and implications of the changes were fully understood. The text was publicly released only a few hours before the vote on the House floor, and the explanatory material accompanying the changes was terse and misleading.

This is not the way that significant changes in the rules governing the ethics committee should be made. It is perhaps inevitable that the results of such a closed process would be flawed, which leads to the other reason we are calling for repeal of the new rules.

UThese changes will, at a minimum, seriously undermine the ability of the ethics committee to consider and act on complaints.

The new rule calling for automatic dismissal of a complaint after a period as short as 45 days will almost certainly promote partisanship and deadlock on the committee. Each complaint should be considered on its merits, not subject to automatic dismissal simply by the passage of time. Our resolution would restore the committee's obligation to carry out its duties.

The new rule that provides so-called due process rights for members includes worthwhile provisions that would be left intact by our resolution. But this rules change would also allow a member to demand an immediate trial on a matter that has not even been investigated. Such a provision would hamstring the committee; that is why our resolution would repeal this particular change.

Finally, the so-called right-to-counsel provision makes it far more likely that one lawyer would represent a member under investigation as well as all of the witnesses. This could invite the coordination of testimony and undermine the committee's fact-finding ability. Our resolution would repeal this provision.

There should be no misunderstanding of what is at stake here, for members and for the House as an institution. In the days and weeks to come, all members will need to decide whether they wish to continue to have a credible, effective ethics process, and to then consider the actions and conditions necessary for such a process to exist. We believe that an essential first step is to repeal the rules changes made at the start of this Congress.

In taking this position, we by no means wish to preclude the possibility of future changes. To the contrary, we believe that ethics rules need to be constantly re-evaluated and changed whenever shortcomings are found. And they must be considered and adopted through a genuinely open, bipartisan process.

X Joel Hefley is a Republican representative from Colorado. Alan B. Mollohan is a Democratic representative from West Virginia.




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