Lowering the ethics bar

December 03, 2004

TO MANY Americans, the phrase "House ethics" probably sounds like a contradiction in terms. The general regard for Congress is so low it's hard to get worked up about sundry allegations against one lawmaker or another.

Disaffected lack of interest must be what Republican House leaders are counting on: Why else would they dare to so boldly dismantle any mechanism for enforcing standards of official conduct - and then boast that that amounted to vindication of repeated instances of crossing over the line?

Those paying attention, though, recognize the likely legacy of the contemptuous manner in which House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has swatted away ethics complaints. It teaches the men and women who make the farthest-reaching laws under which we live that they can abuse their positions with impunity - and dismiss all criticisms as politically motivated.

In other words, they can live down the reputation lawmakers like Mr. DeLay have given them.

Apparently, the only hope of restoring integrity as a valued commodity in an institution run by fierce Republican partisans who have bought into their own hyperbole rests with voices of conscience within the GOP ranks.

Now that current ethics rules are in a shambles, the landscape has at least been cleared for design of a new process that enjoys a measure of credibility and evenhandedness.

A crucial element would involve a return to the practice of allowing outside organizations to file complaints against lawmakers, rather than relying exclusively on colleagues who may be too timid or too co-opted to act. Further, the complaint review should include an investigative arm with some measure of independence - perhaps a board composed of former lawmakers.

Self-policing clearly is not up to the task.

To its credit, the bipartisan House Ethics Committee has rebuked Mr. DeLay five times since 1997, including three instances this year, for creating "the appearance" of impropriety, mostly in connection with efforts to redraw Texas election districts to favor Republicans. But the committee also chastised Texas Democrat Chris Bell, who filed a complaint against Mr. DeLay that prompted the committee's action, for dealing in "innuendo" and "exaggeration." The entire House was put on notice that those who file complaints in the future that can't be firmly documented run the risk of being brought up on charges themselves.

With insiders thus chilled, and outsider complaints excluded, the House Ethics Committee appears to have effectively put itself out of business. Even so, there is talk of retribution against the Republican members.

The worst result will likely be that constituents are even further disgusted and turned off by the whole legislative process. What goes on in Washington may not be pretty, but it matters a great deal. Every citizen should pay attention.

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