WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders tried to kill, then chose to delay indefinitely, action on proposed changes in House ethics rules yesterday, clouding prospects for reforming a process critics say is tainted by partisanship.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was reprimanded and penalized $300,000 this year after a stormy ethics inquiry that sparked calls for reform, decided that lawmakers needed more time to study the proposed changes.
The action upset the 12-member bipartisan task force, co-chaired by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, that worked for months to redefine the delicate procedures by which House members investigate and sit in judgment of one another.
Angry Democrats drew a parallel with Watergate to pronounce the junking of the task force "the Saturday night massacre of the ethics reform," as Cardin put it.
The task force had voted 11-1 to approve its ethics proposals and send them to the full House, with only Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, opposed.
Christina Martin, a spokeswoman for Gingrich, called the incident a procedural "glitch."
After Cardin and his Democratic colleagues aired their charges at a news conference, Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, Cardin's Republican co-chairman, said the process was "back on track" and that a public hearing would be held on the recommendations tomorrow. But Republican leaders refused to set a vote on them.
A moratorium on ethics complaints, in effect for months, is scheduled to expire Tuesday, possibly opening a flood of allegations against House members. Cardin said Democrats would not support an extension of the moratorium unless they were promised a date for a House vote on the task force's recommendations.
Democrats contended that the Republican leadership's moves were handled so clumsily that it appeared Gingrich or others were trying to protect themselves from the more open and more streamlined ethics process that the task force has recommended.
Besides his $300,000 ethics penalty, the speaker faces another complaint before the ethics committee. Complaints are also pending against two other leading Republicans: Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House whip, and Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster.
"Newt Gingrich has pulled the plug on ethics reform again," said Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who is on the task force.
The Republicans' handling of the sensitive issue comes at an awkward time for the party and its speaker. Gingrich is trying to unite his troops behind a tax-cut bill that would fulfill a long-time Republican goal. But the Republican rank-and-file are divided over the House leadership's tactics and dispirited about what many members see as an embarrassing capitulation to President Clinton on the disaster-relief bill last week.
Another ethics dispute "certainly may complicate matters," said Rep. Mark E. Souder of Indiana, among the Republican dissidents unhappy with the leadership's tactics. But Gingrich ridiculed news reports that his GOP colleagues might be on the verge of ousting him as speaker.
The Cardin-Livingston task force had worked four months to produce a report on how the ethics process should be revised to correct flaws some members found during the Gingrich inquiry.
Chief among the changes were a greater role for the party out of power to make the process truly bipartisan, tighter time requirements on the handling of complaints and broader powers for the subcommittee that conducts the investigatory work.
Citizen watchdog groups have already complained, however, that the proposals tilt the wrong way, to protect members rather than open up the process.
Cardin contends that the process has been made more accessible by allowing outside groups to file complaints directly with the ethics committee, which they cannot do now. But the standard for evidence was raised to something more solid than newspaper articles -- such as personal knowledge or witness accounts.
Pub Date: 6/19/97