The House Ethics Committee: The back story
With its attempt to reform the rules of the House Ethics Committee, the GOP leadership proved the road to Hell is paved with good intentions The Republicans tried to do two things at once. And, as often the case, overreaching can produce negative results.
Their overt objective was to correct the problem of straight party-line votes resulting in nothing getting done with regard to ethical violations. You see, the Ethics Committee is unique in that its membership is composed of five Republicans and five Democrats.
What happens in practice is that a Member who is charged with violations of House rules and receives a five-to-five vote is still convicted in the Court of Public Opinion. This especially vexing to Republican Congresspersons because the mainstream media (MSM) trumpet ethics charges against Republicans based on the seriousness of the allegations, not the final outcome. Charges against Republicans are almost always on the front page of such newspapers as The New York Times, The LA Times and The Washington Post. If and when a GOP Member is exonerated by the Ethics Committee, that news is usually found somewhere between the obituaries and the classified advertisements.
So, the Republicans made a rule change that would force the Committee to take a stand, either to convict or exonerate, instead of the old rule that left Members who received a tie vote still under suspicion. So far so good; however, the GOP had another agenda which the Democrats opposed to the point that the Republicans had to back down.
The Republicans wanted to bring Democrat Congressman “Baghdad Jim” McDermott up on ethics charges because he accepted and distributed illegally obtained recordings of cell phone communications between the top Republican leadership. Under Florida law, where a Florida couple used a scanner to intercept and tape these conversations, that is a no-no. Subsequently, the couple was convicted for their illegal acts and fined.
But before they were apprehended, they gave a copy of their tape to Congressman McDermott who then gave the tape to The New York Times and other publications. One of those taped was Republican Congressman John Boehner who then sued Congressman McDermott for monetary as well as punitive damages. The Court awarded Congressman Boehner $10,000 in statutory damages and, in light of what the Court characterized as McDermott’s “outrageous conduct,” $50,000 in punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees and costs.
So, the Republicans wanted McDermott brought before the Ethics Committee. But, given the five-to-five membership of the Committee, they knew that would not do any good because the Democrats would vote as a block to protect McDermott.
The Republicans had other reasons to go after McDermott. Some felt his trip to Baghdad in advance of the Coalition invasion and his endorsement of Saddam Hussein as a great leader and his simultaneous condemnation of President Bush amounted to treason. At the very moment, McDermott was saying the Coalition should give Saddam, yet another, chance to disarm, the Iraqi government was telling the U.N. to stick its inspection teams up a very dark place.
With even the MSM condemning the Democrats for refusing to show up for Ethics Committee meetings, the Democrats had a brilliant idea: Charge Congressman Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, with ethics violations. Hoping the MSM would overlook the fact that their fellow Democrats take far more lobbyist-funded junkets than the Republicans and that DeLay ranks 114th in terms of trips taken, the Democrats alleged that DeLay took illegally-funded foreign travel.
Relying on the MSM to convict DeLay in the Court of Public Opinion, the Democrats got the GOP to rescind the rule that would have forced the Ethics Committee to either convict or exonerate those brought up on ethics charges.
So now, the Ethics Committee will convict neither McDermott nor DeLay. Meanwhile, McDermott, who has actually been convicted on civil charges and may have committed treason, slips off the radar screen. Score one for the wily Democrats.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer and philosopher,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2005. William Hamilton.