Hear no evil, see no evil

February 06, 2005

IT'S TEMPTING to characterize the new chairman of the House Ethics Committee and the two new Republican members as three blind mice.

According to reports from Capitol Hill, the three were chosen by House Speaker Dennis Hastert on the basis of their loyalty. They replaced members who angered the speaker for three rebukes of ethically challenged House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Ousted Chairman Joel Hefley has described the committee shakeup as a "purge," which reportedly may extend to zealous Ethics Committee staff members as well.

The new lineup includes Washington Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings, a Hastert lieutenant who presided over the infamous three-hour vote tally during which Mr. DeLay muscled members into passing the 2003 Medicare bill, and fellow Republicans Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, both of whom have contributed to Mr. DeLay's defense fund. Call them cynical, but prognosticators inside the House and out expect the newly fashioned Ethics Committee to be far less fussy about infractions of House rules than its predecessor.

All Mr. Hastings and his colleagues have to do to get out from under these low expectations is to prove their critics wrong. They can restore the integrity of the House and save Mr. Hastert from himself by demonstrating that the panel, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, won't toady to anybody.

The fate of Mr. Hefley cautions against any display of backbone, however.

The Colorado congressman wasn't exactly spoiling for a fight with the Republican leadership. The House Ethics Committee under his leadership stalled for months as charges continued to build against Mr. DeLay, who is under grand jury investigation in Texas for alleged campaign finance violations related to his heavy-handed machinations in a redistricting maneuver that succeeded in snatching the seats of several Democratic House members out from under them.

After two of Mr. DeLay's cronies were indicted in the probe, and an ousted Democrat filed a complaint, Mr. Hefley was confronted with a scandal he could no longer ignore. Even then, the admonishments were so mild that Mr. DeLay tried to characterize them as vindication.

No matter, Mr. Hefley had to be punished because he dared to show some independence.

If Mr. Hastings and his new crew buckle under to the same sort of pressure, they might as well disband the Ethics Committee, end the charade and scurry back into their mouse hole.

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