Irregular orderHouston Chronicle
November 18, 2004
In the U.S. House of Representatives, when attention to proper procedure wanders, members call out, "Regular order!" Regretfully, not enough members of the Republican caucus were interested in proper procedure Wednesday.
In a show that combined bravura with insecurity, House Republicans changed their rules so that Majority Leader Tom DeLay would not automatically have to step aside from his No. 2 spot if he is indicted as part of a state investigation into campaign finance operations.
It was, shamefully, a voice vote in a closed caucus session of the House Republican Conference. Some of those present said only a few of DeLay's Republican colleagues dared call out a vote against the measure that could protect one of their most prodigious fund-raisers.
The change gives too much leeway to a body that can be subject to extreme political pressure. Under the new rule, the House Republican Steering Committee has 30 legislative days to decide whether one of its leaders or committee chairmen facing a felony indictment should stand down until the charge is resolved.
Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of the few Republicans who publicly opposed the rules change, correctly observed that the retreat from reform was a return to "business as usual."
This exercise in indemnification, aimed at shielding a specific leader, is inexcusable. That's especially so in light of the rule's showy adoption by Republicans in the 1990s to call attention to the federal indictment of a Democratic powerhouse, then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. Rostenkowski, defeated in the Republican tidal wave of 1994, was convicted of mail fraud and served a prison sentence.
At the time, as Republicans were fighting to gain a majority in the House, DeLay said on the floor: "We need new leadership which will act because it is right, not because they have been caught in cover-ups and scandals."
In hindsight, that sounds a touch sanctimonious. Last month, the House ethics committee rebuked DeLay in two cases: He involved the Federal Aviation Administration in the hunt for Democratic legislators who had fled Texas in their attempt to defeat DeLay's proposed redistricting plan, and he created the appearance of favoritism in attending a golf outing with industry executives soon after they donated to his political committees.
Even that slap on the wrist by the ethics committee (five Republicans, five Democrats) outraged protective DeLay loyalists and helped to prompt the campaign for the rules change.
There is no indication that DeLay is to be indicted in an investigation by District Attorney Ronnie Earle in Austin, but three DeLay associates already face charges in the inquiry into the use of corporate money to secure a Republican majority in the 2003 Texas Legislature.
The Republicans, in control of both House and Senate for the first time since the 19th century, rammed through a U.S. House redistricting plan demanded by DeLay. The new map resulted in the unseating of several Democratic incumbents in the election earlier this month, cushioning the hold of DeLay's Republicans on the House.
Picking up DeLay's claim that Earle's investigation is political, Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, said members needed to be shielded from "any crackpot district attorney in any state in the nation from taking on a political agenda."
More to the point was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who said the rules change confirms that the majority Republicans "simply do not care if their leaders are ethical."
The assumption that Earle's investigation is strictly partisan ignores the many bipartisan findings that DeLay has violated ethical standards. The fact that DeLay's efforts added Republican seats to the House should not cancel all regard for propriety.