House GOP takes two steps forward, one back on ethics

House Republicans backed away Monday from the radical watering down of ethics enforcement that they had endorsed in a closed door meeting last November.
In a surprising development, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, asked Republicans to overturn a party rule, enacted in November on his behalf, that allowed party heads to retain their posts even if indicted. Three of DeLay's Texas associates had been indicted by a grand jury in Austin on fund-raising violation charges and if he had been indicted, under party rules adopted in 1994, he would have had to step down as whip.
DeLay, who no longer expects to be indicted, decided to seek the elimination of the rule protecting him because he didn't want to give Democrats an issue at the beginning of a new Congress.
Hastert withdrew a proposed ethics committee change, which also involved DeLay and which also had the potential for giving Democrats political ammunition.
That proposed change would have recast a 40-year-old rule that allows the House ethics committee to admonish a lawmaker for conduct that brings discredit on the House, even if that action isn't specifically against the rules. As it happens, the ethics panel admonished DeLay three times last year for such questionable-looking activities. The committee criticized his tactics in trying to win the vote of a colleague, for giving the impression of a link between donations and support for legislation, and for his office's contact with federal aviation officials, seeking their intervention in a Texas political dispute.
Quaint, but enforceable
While the rule that requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves "at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House" may lack the specificity required for a criminal charge, it is not too much to ask of an ethical lawmaker. In each of the three cases, DeLay's peers -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- found his behavior clearly unacceptable.
DeLay and Hastert didn't backtrack out of any newly acquired sense of propriety and ethics. They did so because some of their own members had the guts to point out that Republicans were beginning to behave in the same imperious way that Democrats had behaved when they held the power in Washington. DeLay and Hastert didn't even see the irony -- or the danger -- in undoing the 1994 Contract with America until wiser, more ethical members of their own party spoke up.
Not all of the news on the ethical front on the first day of the new Congress was good, however. Hastert and DeLay are not backing away from changing an Ethics Committee rule that assured ethics complaints would be investigated in a nonpartisan way.
Because the committee is made up of eight Republicans and eight Democrats, the rule has been that in the event of a stalemate on a complaint, an investigation would begin after 45 days. Under the new proposal, no investigation will be conducted unless there is a majority vote.
There is an arrogance in abandoning that rule that says two things: As long as we stick together, we'll be able to protect our own, and we don't ever plan on being in the minority again. They better hope the voters don't hear that.

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