Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Phoblog's Procedural Roots

In Congress, rules aren't made to be broken, they're just real easy to change fast.

Ah, Congressional rulemaking. It used to be a Phoblog speciality. Let's step into the wayback machine for a moment: The year is 1999, and Jack Pitney's Congress class helps me realize a life-long love of procedure and rules (hey, I was the kid who always wanted to be the door monitor in grade school). While in Washington, DC, I wrote a fat paper on Majority party procedure-wielding. And, of course, who could forget my stunning turn as Senator Robert C. Byrd during the Congress simulation. Watch me do procedure-circles around you, foolish Republican majority! I have an autographed copy of Walter J. Oleszek's Congressional Procedure (4th Edition) - yeah, I'm THAT nerd. Ah, the good ol' days.

So, you can imagine my delight this morning as I read about the GOP's push for a rule change to protect DeLay. Seems that rule they demanded to punish such indicted democrats as Dan Rostenkowski bacjk in the early 90s just rings unfair when it's about to be applied to the guy who helped them jam through an ethically-questionable Texas re-redistricting. The Reep argument goes something like this: aww, come on, now, the guy got us like 5 more seats - so what's an idictment anyway? It's an unproven allegation. Unproven!

From the article:

"That's why this [proposed rule change] is going to pass, assuming it's submitted, because there is a tremendous recognition that Tom DeLay led on the issue to produce five more seats" for the Republicans, Cantor said after emerging from a meeting in which the Republican Conference welcomed new members and reelected Hastert and DeLay as its top leaders.

Other Republicans agreed the conference is likely to change the rule if given the chance. An indictment is simply an unproven allegation that should not require a party leader to step aside, said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), a former trial judge, said it makes sense to differentiate between federal and
state indictments in shaping party rules because state grand juries often are led by partisan, elected prosecutors who may carry political grudges against lawmakers.
Ah, yes, and the Federal judiciary is completely free from bias or partisan encumbrances. But I digress. Do any of those rule changing arguments really persuade you? More likely, they persuade the American public to believe more strongly that Congress is full of self-interested, self-serving rule-changers - like a playground bully who can magically decide who's "it" based on his say-so. The state judge/fed judge dynamic is embodied in one proposal to allow leaders merely indicted by state grand juries to stay, but require leaders to step down (at least temporarily) if a federal court indicts. That's probably good. I mean, why should a MOC be held more accountable by a state court, a body closer to his constituents and community? I think that's just foolishness. Does that mean state representatives should take federal indictments less seriously?


The House ethics committee on Oct. 6 admonished DeLay for asking federal aviation officials to track an airplane involved in the highly contentious 2003 redistricting battle, and for conduct that suggested political donations might influence legislative action. The ethics panel deferred action on a complaint related to TRMPAC, noting that the grand jury has not finished its work.

The Texas investigation is headed by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, an elected Democrat who has been bitterly criticized by DeLay supporters. Yesterday, Cantor called Earle's efforts "a witch hunt."

"It's a totally a partisan exercise," Cantor said. "It's coincidental with what's going on up here [in the Capitol], where they are trying every avenue to go after Tom DeLay because they can't beat him" on the House floor or in congressional elections. Changing the rule is not a sign that lawmakers think DeLay will be indicted, Cantor said, but rather a public rebuke of an investigation they feel is wholly unwarranted.
At a certain level, I suppose at least everyone is singing off the standard songbook. Dems cry partisan-foul at investigations (rightly or wrongly instituted) that can be shown, in any small way, to have a Republican involved. So I won't feign surprise at the Reep rhetoric on the investigation's legitimacy. At the same time though, if you connect some of the dots, we have DeLay pulling federal strings to interfere with a state process that basically guarantees he's electorally untouchable and now that the board is perfectly set, he's also positioned to cry foul at anything a Democrat dares do.

And changing the rules as a public rebuke of an unwarranted investigation? Congress writes it's own rules and its up to every legislative body to control its own members, from rule creation to enforcement. So, yes, it's within their rights to change a rule whenever it suits them. But the creation of the rule was a public rebuke of a sitting Congressman. Now it's a public rebuke of the type of rebuke. Too much rebuking here. From an acadmic perspective, it's a lovely, made-for-the-classroom example of the axiom: pass not a minority rule today that may return to bite you in your majority ass.

It just rings hollow, guys. The party of ethics and values is sure quick to excuse itself, isn't it? That's real leadership, kids. Do as I enact, not as I amend.

Update: From Josh Marshall comments twice on the topic - cleverly headlining one post, "House Republicans Embrace new pro-crime agenda." Love it.

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