On Capitol Hill, the swearing-in ceremony for new lawmakers is always an occasion for pomp and circumstance. This year, the start of the 109th Congress was marked by all the usual pomp-and a bit of circumspection, as well.
Holding babies, cameras, and family Bibles, 41 new members joined the House of Representatives on Jan. 4, while nine new senators took the oath of office administered by Vice President Cheney. In both chambers the freshman class was dominated by Republicans eager to help President Bush pass his aggressive legislative agenda.
"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood," admonished House Speaker Dennis Hastert, quoting Daniel Burnham, a turn-of-the-century architect who transformed Chicago's skyline. "In this Congress, big plans will stir men's blood," Mr. Hastert vowed. "The 109th Congress will be a reform Congress."
Within hours, as promised, blood was not only stirring, but boiling. In their first stab at reform, House Republicans voted to water down the chamber's ethics rules, handing Democrats a convenient rhetorical club with which to beat up on the majority.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the rule change "shameless," citing it as evidence of the Republicans' "arrogant, petty, short-sighted focus on their political life."
"The lesson we have today is [if] you have the power and you break the rules . . . you can change them," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the powerful Rules Committee.
Under the new system, passed on a strict, party-line vote of 220-195, no investigations can be opened without a majority vote by the House ethics committee. With that committee evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, achieving a majority will require at least one member to vote against a colleague from his or her own party. (The old rule allowed investigations to be launched automatically after 45 days if the panel was deadlocked.)
"This change restores the presumption of innocence in our process," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the Rules Committee. Supporters say the new rule simply gives House members the kind of due process protections they would enjoy in a court of law, but even some Republicans grumbled about the change.
Ethics committee Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) voted for the change, but not until he had publicly berated his Republican colleagues for muscling the measure through without consulting the 10 members of the committee. "These are the people that struggle with these issues every day," he said. "You ought to be concerned about what we think would make the process work better."
Congressional watchdogs pounced on the rule change as evidence that Republican leaders in the House are growing arrogant in their power. "This cynical and destructive action by House Republican leaders shows how the political game is sometimes played by the powerful in Washington: When caught red-handed, change the rules," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a left-leaning interest group that favors open government. "The only winners will be those special interests that peddle influence with Congress so they can feed at the public trough."
But Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the subject of a slew of ethics investigations over the past few years, insisted the new rule was needed to prevent Democrats from clogging the system with nuisance complaints. "That's part of their long-standing announced strategy-to tear down the institution in order to gain power."
At the very least, the new ethical standards appear to give the Democrats an issue with proven vote-getting potential. Ten years ago, Republicans took over the Congress with a coordinated national campaign for better ethics and more transparency in government. Led by Newt Gingrich, the new GOP majority instituted tough new ethical guidelines that banned almost all gifts from lobbyists and forced powerful committee chairmen to step down after a given number of years.
Over the years, however, those guidelines have been gradually scaled back. Lawmakers may once again accept vacations and meals from lobbyists, and some are now pressing for the right to bring family members along. The term limits on committee chairmen can be waived by a vote of the Republican caucus, and Speaker Hastert was specifically exempted from term limits in 2003. The latest move to raise the bar on initiating an ethics investigation may further tarnish the GOP's image as the party of reform.
Still, for all the controversy over the new rule, Republican leaders did step back at the last moment from even more sweeping ethical reforms.
On the evening of Jan. 3, hours before the new members were sworn in, Rep. DeLay asked his Republican colleagues to reverse a controversial rule they had passed on his behalf just last November. After several of Rep. DeLay's associates were indicted last year by a Texas grand jury on charges of fundraising violations, the Republican caucus voted to overturn a rule requiring party leaders to resign their leadership posts in case of indictment on criminal charges.
Even if Rep. DeLay were completely innocent, they reasoned, a politically motivated indictment could cripple the party by sidelining its most canny-and aggressive-leader. The threat to Rep. DeLay appeared imminent, because grand juries issue indictments if there is merely a "reasonable expectation" of wrongdoing. That's a much easier burden of proof than Rep. DeLay would eventually face in a criminal trial, where prosecutors would have to establish his guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Despite the legal logic behind their move, Republicans were bombarded with complaints from angry constituents, and some members grumbled that the party had been forced to tarnish its image for the sake of one leader. Rep. DeLay's surprise move on Monday night sought to reverse the damage. Members quickly honored his request to return to the earlier rule, even though it would seem to put his leadership in jeopardy.
"I feel like we have just taken a shower," said a relieved Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "It allows the Republicans to focus on the issues, the agenda that is before us, and not to have Tom DeLay be the issue."
House Republican leaders also backed down from their plan to gut the rule that tripped up Rep. DeLay in the first place. House Rule XXIII says members must act "at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House." If the ethics committee decides that a lawmaker has discredited the body, he or she can be publicly reprimanded-even if no specific laws or rules were violated.
Rep. DeLay, known for his aggressive partisanship, ran afoul of Rule XXIII three times last year by getting too close to lobbyists and twisting too many arms in pursuit of votes. Unanimous rebukes by the ethics committee embarrassed the party, though allies like Speaker Hastert argued that the vagueness of the rule itself was to blame.
In the end, however, Speaker Hastert withdrew his support for throwing out Rule XXIII, allowing Republicans to re-group and focus on the president's legislative agenda. With tsunami relief, terrorism, tax reform, and Social Security overhaul on the table, it was time to abandon the pomp and start priming the pump.