Thursday, November 18, 2004

Should partisan state prosecutors be able to overturn the leadership in Congress? That’s the question House Republicans wrestled with this week when trying to decide if a decade-old rule undermines Congress’ authority. On Wednesday, House members decided to revise the rule, thereby allowing Rep. Tom DeLay to keep his majority leader status should he be indicted by a Texas grand jury. The pressure has been on Mr. DeLay ever since three of his political associates were indicted in September on charges of illegally funneling corporate donations to legislative races.

According to the rule established in 1993, a congressional leader under indictment must step down from his or her leadership role. The revision allows an indicted member to stay on as leader while the Steering Committee decides the next course of action. Over revising the rule, Democrats are crying foul. But the revision makes good sense for both sides. Though grand jury indictments don’t happen every day, it isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where an opposition party uses the old rule for vindictive reasons. It appears that just such a scenario was in the works, and Republicans rightly responded.

The Travis County, Texas, prosecutor investigating Mr. DeLay has a history of using his office for partisan ends. The district attorney, Ronnie Earle, maintains that he has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans in his career, but those who’ve been watching Mr. Earle work know better. In the past, Mr. Earle has been accused of collaborating with reporters to push his investigations of political figures. In 2003, Austin American-Statesman reporter Dave McNeely inappropriately allowed Mr. Earle to review a story about the corporate-donations case before it went to press. Another widely known example involves a 1994 case Mr. Earle brought against newly elected Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Mr. Earle charged that Mrs. Hutchison, then Texas state treasurer and a rising star in the Republican Party, was using state employees for political purposes. When the judge refused to admit certain documents, Mr. Earle withdrew his case. Later, he invited reporters to view the inadmissible documents. For that, the Dallas Morning News wrote: “the impression of partisan unfairness has certainly been reinforced by the leaks and public comment about Hutchison’s case from the District Attorney’s office … That the Grand Jury investigation has been conducted with so much fanfare such as the tip-offs to the new media when key records were seized from the former treasurer’s office has added a darker tone to the cloudy proceedings.”

In the end, Congress cannot allow its leadership to be placed in the hands of partisan prosecutors, or whosoever wishes to subvert its authority.

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