For the blind optimists who anticipated a policy-focused legislative term devoid of partisan wrangling and ethical blunders, the 109th Congress’s first-week performance will come as a disappointment.
The exhaustive controversy surrounding the House Ethics Committee has taken what many believe to be a considerably unethical turn. A recently passed rule allows the committee to dismiss any ethics complaint that encounters a deadlocked vote. In a 10-person committee split equally between the two parties, the new bylaw is likely to shift the ethics discussion back underground where it rested until House Majority Leader Tom Delay’s (R-Texas) at-home fundraising came under the spotlight in 1994.
Delay was previously admonished for soliciting campaign contributions in return for legislative favors and abusing the powers of a federal agency, among other accusations. If these changes to the ethics committee had been implemented retroactively, every one of the complaints against Delay would have been discarded before coming to the public’s attention. While Congress appeared on the right track when it refused to pass a proposal allowing an elected official to keep a leadership post after being indicted on criminal charges (a resolution GOP representatives were pushing to protect Delay), the deadlock dismissal provision makes any goodwill suspect.
The Republican Party has begun flexing its recently-augmented muscles on other issues in Congress as well. Most notably, the GOP has begun bullying Democrats over the use of the filibuster in federal appointment hearings. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) has threatened a policy change if Democrats do not show “self restraint” in their use of the valuable vote-blocking tool. A number of Republicans have supported a reform that would modify the vote count needed to stop a filibuster from 60 votes in the Senate to a simple majority — a margin easily attained with a partisan vote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) has called the threat “destructive and unethical,” and has expressed concern that these leverage games may become a trend in the ensuing months.
To be sure, Democrats hold legitimate concerns about President Bush’s roster of prospective appointees — most notably attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales, who once casually referred to the Geneva Convention’s anti-torture policies regarding prisoners of war as “obsolete” and “quaint,” is hardly a model candidate for the nation’s leading law enforcement officer.
It is unacceptable for Democrats to be prevented from filibustering proposed federal appointees; every member of the Senate is entitled to use this method to halt the progression of a proposal. Regardless of who has the majority, the right to an officially recognized filibuster should remain intact.
The opening of this congressional term has been an unequivocal disappointment. In less than a week, the GOP has demonstrated a clear willingness to use their majority status to browbeat Democrats into accepting an attorney general appointee who has failed to come to grips with the Eight Amendment of the Constitution — the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment — and the House Ethics Committee has once again voted to veil Congress’s moral code in partisan gridlock. Americans living in a deeply divided nation can only hope this is not the way in which congressional affairs will persist.