Cutting their losses

April 29, 2005

HOUSE SPEAKER Dennis Hastert's decision to retreat this week on ethics changes apparently designed to protect his majority leader, Tom DeLay, was a bow to the inevitable. Republican rank-and-file members were hearing from constituents who may not give a fig about Tom DeLay or particular ethics requirements but detected an odor from Washington they didn't like.

By giving in to demands from Democrats that unilateral changes in the bipartisan process be dropped, the speaker moved to take the wind out of a controversy that has overshadowed other House business and threatened to tar all of its members.

However, his chances of success depend mightily on whether the House Ethics Committee is now able to proceed with an investigation of Mr. DeLay and perhaps other members in a manner widely seen to be fair and evenhanded. No easy feat, to be sure, and one that requires and deserves support from leaders on both sides of the aisle in cooling the partisan rhetoric.

Too many hotheads have begun to speak of the ethics process, and the DeLay matter in particular, in terms of a "war." Such talk only adds to the acrimony on Capitol Hill, which has become both palpable and crippling to the legislative process.

Mr. DeLay is in the most unenviable position. He'd already been admonished by the Ethics Committee several times last year for creating "the appearance of conflict" in his relationships with prominent lobbyists before the speaker replaced the committee's chairman and pushed through rules changes that allow members of either party to thwart a probe of their colleagues.

Another rules change written to address a Texas investigation of Mr. DeLay's fund-raising activities - dropping a requirement that House leaders step down if indicted - was overturned earlier this year at the urging of Republican members, who were embarrassed at ditching a change their party had advanced during the 1990s in the wake of Democratic ethics scandals.

Now Mr. DeLay faces a new, potentially more rigorous, inquiry into questions about his lobbyist-paid travel.

Because the Republican contingent on the Ethics Committee has been padded with DeLay allies, an outside counsel will probably have to be appointed to give the perception of objectivity. At a minimum, Speaker Hastert should ensure the committee's investigative staff is hired with bipartisan approval.

The majority leader is not the only House member burned by the controversy, though. Most House members have felt some heat, with many scrambling to amend or correct reports on their travels in response to increased scrutiny.

Thus, all could benefit if party leaders took this opportunity to order a bipartisan review of the ethics process to ensure that the rules are clear, and that enforcement is fair and transparent.

Voters sometimes can't tell which party that Washington whiff is coming from. They just hold their noses.

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