WASHINGTON — With members of both parties acknowledging that the highly politicized ethics case involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich was an embarrassment to the institution, Republicans on Sunday called for major changes in the rules for handling such cases.
With the House expected to levy a $300,000 fine and a formal reprimand against Gingrich on Tuesday, key GOP lawmakers--including the head of the committee that investigated the speaker--proposed a "loser pays" provision as a way to deter what they consider politically motivated ethics charges.
"One of the things we have to deal with is frivolous complaints, either by clarifying the threshold of what's an acceptable complaint or through some kind of 'loser pays' mechanism," Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), outgoing chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, said on the "Fox News Sunday" TV program.
Under the plan envisioned by Johnson, if a House member is cleared of charges, the accuser would have to pay the costs of the investigation.
"The House cannot go on using the Ethics Committee as a field on which to play out ideological differences or personal animosities," Johnson said.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), also appearing on the Fox program, suggested that some Democrats might be asked to pay for some of the more than 70 charges against Gingrich that were not sustained.
Another leading Republican, Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, suggested in an interview that outsiders, such as retired judges and former House members, should become participants in the ethics process.
"We need to bring about major changes," Dreier said, adding that he wholeheartedly supports what he called a "harasser pays" provision.
Implicit in that demand is the widespread sentiment among Republicans that Democrats egregiously politicized the ethics process during the Gingrich probe.
Democrats seemed unreceptive to the calls for reform, even as they conceded that much of the conduct during the Gingrich case left something to be desired.
"The ethics process has been badly damaged," Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) said on CNN's "Late Edition."
He described the Gingrich matter as the culmination of "the growing use of ethics process for political purposes." But he and other Democrats have blamed the Republicans for the trend.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) dismissed the GOP talk of reforming the ethics process as "probably just rhetoric." In an interview, Matsui said the filing of charges "should not be made so difficult that people would refuse to do it."
The discussion on reforming the ethics process came as the Gingrich matter draws to a close in the House, with the vote on his sanctions expected to be bipartisan and overwhelming. If approved, Gingrich would become the first speaker to be formally reprimanded by his colleagues.
On Friday night, the eight-member Ethics Committee agreed, 7-1, on the sanctions and recommended them to the full House.
The $300,000 assessment is intended as reimbursement to the House for the costs incurred investigating Gingrich's conflicting statements to the committee about the possible use of tax-exempt contributions while promoting his political agenda.
The two-year investigation was marked by personal attacks and partisan allegations, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioning the motives of members of the opposing party.
As the case neared its climax, the process nearly broke down altogether.
The ranking Democrat of the Ethics Committee, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), stepped down after he allegedly received and leaked to the press a tape of a telephone conversation in which Gingrich discussed the ethics charges with allies. At the same time, Democrats accused Johnson of bending House rules to protect Gingrich.
One remaining question in the case is whether Gingrich can use campaign funds to pay the anticipated $300,000 levy.
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a Gingrich ally who chairs the House GOP conference, said on "Late Edition" that the decision is up to the speaker.
But he added: "From the political standpoint, he really almost has no choice" but to pay the fine out of his personal assets.
Rep. Marvin Frost (D-Texas) said political funds should not be used to pay the costs. "It would be more appropriate for him to use personal funds," he said on Fox.