His own worst enemy

March 17, 2005

HOUSE MAJORITY Leader Tom DeLay says he's been falsely accused in press reports suggesting he accepted travel expenses from prohibited sources. As part of a campaign to put the matter to rest, Mr. DeLay volunteered an elaborate defense of his actions to the chairman and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee.

Yet the committee is in no position to rule on the matter because it technically doesn't exist. House Republicans so thoroughly eviscerated the committee after it admonished Mr. DeLay several times last year, Democrats won't let the panel function in the new Congress until its old powers are restored.

If Mr. DeLay is as confident as he says that he has done nothing wrong, he should demonstrate that by allowing the House to have an ethics review process worthy of the name. The Texas Republican can best serve himself and his party by confronting the growing list of allegations against him head-on, rather than trying to rig the outcome of any prospective inquiry.

The majority leader is a shrewd and highly effective politician who is probably more responsible that any other for the Republicans' 10-year grasp on House control. But he's so often skated on the edge of legal and ethical restrictions, critics claim to have found repeated examples of instances in which he has veered over the line.

Two overseas trips - one financed by a registered foreign agent and the other bankrolled by lobbying clients of a former aide now under criminal investigation - are just the latest questionable DeLay activities drawing attention in Washington and back in the congressman's suburban Houston district.

DeLay allies are quick to blame Democrats for what they say are partisan attacks. But despite considerable effort, Democrats have never been able to inflict as much political damage as the majority leader has brought upon himself - or suffered at the hands of cronies feathering their own nests.

With his House Republican colleagues growing nervous, the resilient Mr. DeLay is battling to emerge from the ethics cloud and put this unpleasantness behind him. He could do that most effectively by championing an ethics process that is independent, thorough and empowered to pursue an inquiry wherever it leads.

Such an about-face could be Mr. DeLay's shrewdest move ever on behalf of his party.

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