Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Ethics in the House

The New York Times
January 5, 2005

Ethics in the House

Congressional Republicans are actually trying to claim the side of the angels in their forced retreat from defending the ethical lapses of the majority leader Tom DeLay. "I feel like we have just taken a shower," one G.O.P. lawmaker said. Not hardly. While taking a half-step from Mr. DeLay's more embarrassing machinations, the Republican majority made sure to strike a potentially lethal blow to the enfeebled House ethics process.

A rules change engineered by the leadership means that corruption complaints against lawmakers will automatically expire if the evenly divided ethics committee finds itself in a 5-to-5 party-line standoff. As hobbled as the old system was, a standoff at least meant that the complaint went to a subcommittee for investigation. That produced three warnings for Mr. DeLay last year.

Speaker Dennis Hastert is also reported to be intent on purging the current chairman, Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who shocked his party by suddenly taking the job seriously. Mr. Hefley dared to sign off on the three admonishments of Mr. DeLay for cutting ethical corners by buttering up lobbyists, arm-twisting for floor votes and siccing federal agents on the Democrats who fled his gerrymandering intrusion into the Texas Statehouse. Hardly a career firebrand, Mr. Hefley, if he is to go, should be replaced by someone truly dedicated to rebuilding the House's tattered ethical reputation.

An unbowed Mr. DeLay was able to rally the G.O.P. troops in November for a shameless rules change that would have meant he wouldn't have to step aside as leader should he be indicted in a Texas grand jury inquiry into his fund-raising activities. But even Mr. DeLay had to endorse the scrapping of this shield as he faced growing resistance this week from Republicans concerned that his ethical arrogance had become a defining issue for the Democrats.

Still, the Republicans' belated realization that they needed to put limits on Mr. DeLay's demands for ethical sanctuary would have seemed more sincere if they'd done without the sleight of hand that makes a greater mockery of the ethics process.