Sunday, March 13, 2005

Ethically Immune 

If you've been following the news over the last few days, you know that House Majority Leader (and ambulatory cesspit) Tom DeLay is likely to need every penny of the $250 grand his legal defense fund has rustled up since two of his cronies were indicted last fall:
The list of recent donors includes dozens of DeLay's House Republican colleagues, including two lawmakers who were placed on the House ethics committee this year, and several of the nation's largest corporations and their executives.

Among the corporate donors to the defense fund are Bacardi USA, the Florida-based rum-maker, which has also been indicted in the Texas investigation; and Reliant Energy, another major contributor to a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay that is the focus of the criminal inquiry. Groups seeking an overhaul of congressional ethics rules have long complained that companies may seek the favor of powerful lawmakers by contributing to their legal defense funds . . . .

A spokesman for DeLay, Dan Allen, said there was no conflict of interest for the majority leader in accepting donations for his legal fees from large companies or from House colleagues. The contributions, Allen said, "were an acknowledgement that Congressman DeLay is a fixture within the conservative movement and has been a very effective leader, which makes him an inviting target for liberals and Democrats."
Republicans, as you know, were not content to pack the ethics committee with DeLay loyalists; sensing the imminent need for further insurance, they unilaterally changed the procedural rules to shield DeLay, and other swamp-dwellers like him, from investigation. The only positive thing we can say about this naked insult to both democracy and ethics is that it seems to have awakened a sense of outrage in the previously somnolent Democrats:
Just as new controversy has erupted over trips taken by congressional Democrats and Republicans — including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — the workings of the chamber's ethics committee have been brought to a halt.

Democrats are refusing to accept new rules for the panel written by House Republicans, saying the edicts would gut the committee's ability to conduct investigations. The Democrats say they will block the committee from functioning until the rules are rescinded . . . .

The roots of the conflict reach back to the last congressional session, when the ethics committee issued three reprimands of DeLay for misconduct stemming from aggressive political tactics.

The House GOP leadership subsequently replaced the chairman of the ethics committee, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), and appointed three new members [including
Lamar Smith of Texas, who donated $10K to DeLay's defense fund, and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who chipped in $5K -- S.] to the 10-member panel, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. The new members were seen as loyal to DeLay and the House's other Republican leaders.

At the same time, the House leadership rewrote the committee's rules, which were passed on a party-line vote in January. The new rules allow the committee to launch an investigation only with the consent of a majority of its members — meaning a lawmaker would have to cross party lines to investigate a member of his own party. The new rules also limit the committee to 45 days to decide whether a complaint warrants investigation, and allows it to let the complaint die by taking no action . . . .

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), who for years served as the panel's ranking Democrat, said Republicans crossed a line when they rewrote the rules without consulting Democrats. "The Republicans made a terrible mistake," he said. "They have to undo that."
The ethics committee shenanigans are symptomatic of a vastly larger pattern of shamelessness. For an exhaustive compendium of the corrupt bully-boy tactics deployed by the DeLay Republicans in their quest to establish a de facto one-party state, you should examine Broken Promises: The Death of Deliberative Democracy, a 147-page document that bills itself as "a Congressional Report on the Unprecedented Erosion of the Democratic Process in the 108th Congress." It was compiled by the House Rules Committee Minority Office under Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), released last week, and (need we add) roundly ignored by the mainstream press, although the Washington Post did give it a couple of paragraphs on page A13. We hope to quote from this remarkable document at length over the next week or two, but in the meantime, a brief extract from the executive summary at the front of the report should give you some sense of the general flavor:
In the 108th Congress, House Republicans became the most arrogant, unethical and corrupt majority in modern Congressional history. When they took control of the House after the 1994 elections, Republicans vowed they would be different than previous Congresses. They promised they would manage the House in a way that fostered what they called “deliberative democracy,” which they defined as “the full and free airing of conflicting opinions through hearings, debates, and amendments for the purpose of developing and improving legislation deserving of the respect and support of the people.”

This report documents how, ten years after their “revolution,” House Republicans have completely abandoned this standard of deliberative democracy they set for themselves. Furthermore, they have abandoned any other principle of procedural fairness or democratic accountability. In the opinion of many non-partisan observers of Congress, the 108th Congress not only matched the worst abuses of earlier Congresses; it set a whole new benchmark.

This report examines in detail how, over the past two years, the Republican leadership ignored the House Rules and the basic standards of legislative fairness and regular order with an impunity that is unprecedented in the history of the House of Representatives. This report shows that:
  • Despite their vows to open up the rules process and restore deliberative democracy to the House chamber, House Republicans took unprecedented steps in the 108th Congress to make the House floor a “democracy-free zone.” They used closed and highly restrictive rules to prevent Members from offering amendments that would have provoked real debate and forced Members to go on the record on real issues. The end result of this policy was that special interests, not U.S. Representatives, wrote the major bills in the 108th Congress. Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich recently suggested House Republicans “should open up the rules more.”

  • House Republicans continued to squeeze out real debate on controversial issues in the House by devoting more and more floor time to suspension bills. In the 108th Congress, Republican leaders apparently decided that the House should spend two out of the three days of its already abbreviated legislative week on noncontroversial legislation, such as bills that name post offices and congratulate sports teams. At the same time, they allowed less time and fewer amendments and votes on the serious, substantive legislation the House considers.

  • Rules Committee Republicans intentionally used emergency meeting procedures and late-night meetings in the 108th Congress to discourage Members and the press from participating in the legislative process. These tactics not only discouraged Members from bringing amendments to the Committee and participating in the legislative process; they also appeared to be drive Republican Rules Members off the Committee.

  • House Republicans repeatedly embarrassed the House by granting blanket waivers to conference reports and rushing them through the House before Members could read them. The 108th Congress was repeatedly ridiculed for the special-interest provisions Republican leaders stuck into conference bills, such as the infamous “Hooters” provision in the Energy bill and the provision allowing Congressional staffers to snoop on American citizens’ tax returns.
We conclude this report with some modest recommendations to curtail the most egregious abuses we observed in the 108th Congress and restore a small measure of accountability and democratic deliberation to a legislative body that is supposed to be a model of those two values.

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