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Broken Contract

By the end of 1991, when I rejoined Livingston in Washington as his press secretary, Wright was indeed gone. The House bank scandal--massive overdrafts at the members' private bank--was just beginning, and within months it would thoroughly capture public attention. As Livingston campaigned for reelection in 1992, the single biggest applause line of his stump speech was when he noted that he hadn't bounced a single check. When Republicans took back the House in 1994, Gingrich, Livingston, and other GOP leaders would prove true to their word. Their famous playbook known as the Contract With America began not with a call for tax cuts or spending discipline. It began with a simple promise: "to restore accountability to Congress [and] to end its cycle of scandal and disgrace." The document followed with a pledge to, on the very first day of Congress, adopt eight specific internal reforms. To its credit, the 1994 Congress, under Gingrich's leadership, fulfilled most of those pledges.

I have been thinking a lot recently about what Gingrich said to me in the car in 1987. He promised an "ethics offensive," and initially at least, he delivered. But ten years into the GOP revolution that Gingrich started, the ethics of Congressional Republicans can only be described as, well, offensive.

Compare the actions taken by the GOP Congress in 1995 and 1996 to the recent actions of Congressional Republicans: Back then, House Republicans loudly trumpeted their strict new near-ban on lobbyists' gifts to representatives and staffers; in 2003, they gutted the gift ban by raising the gift-value limit by about tenfold. Back then, they put stricter limits on the types of free junkets available to members and staff; in 2003, they exempted "charitable" junkets from those limits. Back then, they boasted about opening the legislative process to public scrutiny by making all committee hearings (unless classified for security reasons) open to the public; now, they write most of the significant parts of their bills behind the closed doors of House-Senate conferences.

There is, unfortunately, more. Gingrich made a point of promising to never let a floor vote last beyond 17 minutes. Upon assuming the speakership in 1999, Dennis Hastert made the same pledge. But in 2003, Hastert kept the vote open an hour while twisting arms on an early version of a Medicare reform bill. Five months later, he kept floor balloting open for three solid hours, beginning at 3 a.m., while furiously browbeating recalcitrant back-benchers to secure the Medicare bill's final passage. Now he has made the extended-vote practice almost routine.

Republicans once stood foursquare against the political strong-arm tactics that Democrats used to ensure party discipline. But in 2003, during the infamous three-hour Medicare vote, GOP congressmen reportedly threatened fellow Republican Nick Smith, who had announced his impending retirement and who opposed the Medicare bill, by saying that they would sink the primary campaign of his son who was running to replace him. In the next few weeks, Smith repeatedly said he had been the target of bribery attempts; a later investigation did find that campaign money had at least been mentioned prominently during the arm twisting.

But shameful as all of this was, it turns out to have been merely a prelude to the rancid ethical display Republicans have put on to open the 109th Congress. Three times last fall alone, the bipartisan ethics committee unanimously admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay for actions that reeked of impropriety. Rather than castigate their sharp-elbowed leader, though, the Republican conference as a whole turned on GOP ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley, who had dared to issue rebukes to DeLay. Citing term limits on ethics committee membership, the House leadership pushed Hefley out of his chairmanship. But Hefley had served only four years as chairman; the usual chairmanship limit is six years--and House leaders showed their hypocrisy by simultaneously waiving the term-limits requirement to give seventh and eighth years as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee to California's David Dreier.

As they shafted Hefley, Republicans also changed the rule governing how ethics investigations can start in the first place. The former rule was that if the ethics committee remained in a 50-50 partisan deadlock for 45 days about whether to launch an investigation, an inquiry would begin. That way, the minority at least earned the right to be heard. This month, the GOP conference changed that rule to require that a majority of the committee must agree before the panel can start an investigation. The upshot? A determined majority party can now protect any one of its members from internal House investigation, no matter how reasonable the minority's suspicions.

Finally, Republicans have tried to weaken the actual written standards of ethics that have governed the House for decades. DeLay had been admonished for running afoul of a broad prohibition against any actions that don't "reflect creditably" on the institution. House leaders originally indicated support for a change that would disallow rebukes for anything other than a violation of a specific, preexisting law or rule. The distinction is important: The proposed new standard would equate ethics with legality. But ethics, by their very nature, involve broader issues than mere legality; after all, that which isn't technically illegal can still be unethical.

Under fire in the national media for their proposals, Republicans at the last minute backed off from pushing through this change. As they did, however, Hastert spokesman John Feehery insisted that the proposal "would have been the right thing to do."

Actually, no; it would not have been the right thing to do. Besides, if the leaders really believed it would have been "right," what does it say about their ethics that they would abandon the right thing merely because the media was making it, in Feehery's words, "a distraction"? Even when backing away from their own attempt to back away from high standards, these people don't have the courage of their convictions.

None of which is to say that Congressional Democrats, especially those who use outright character assassination against Republican judicial nominees, have shown the slightest inclination to act with any more integrity than Republicans. But in Louisiana, where I grew up and where the now-jailed Edwin Edwards was the Democratic Party king, Republicans would not have been content to be merely no worse than Democrats. And if Newt Gingrich believed what he was telling me in the summer of 1987, he surely would not have been content with that either.

Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register.

By Quin Hillyer