So Much for Ethics

The Republicans who seized control of the House in 1994 were certainly the most idealistic class of lawmakers since the “Watergate babies” of 1974. Believing the long years in power had corrupted the Democratic majority they replaced, the ascendant Republicans tightened the House ethics rules to show that a new day had come.

Here we are just over 10 years later, and the House Republicans have become accustomed to power. That’s why it was especially shameless when the Republican leadership set out to kill a rule that would have required GOP leader Tom DeLay to step down if indicted – as appeared possible because of an investigation back home in Texas.

Equally shameless was an effort to also kill a longstanding rule that allows the House ethics committee to admonish a lawmaker for conduct that isn’t specifically against the rules but really looks bad – i.e., tending to bring discredit on the House. As it happens, the ethics panel has admonished DeLay three times for questionable-looking activities.

As the House convened this week, the Republican leadership abruptly dropped those proposed changes. The ostensible reason was that the controversy was detracting from loftier goals like reforming Social Security. Right.

A better explanation is that constituents, Republican backbenchers and watchdog groups across the political spectrum thought those changes stunk. They were too patently intended to protect one person, DeLay, from his own political excesses to pretend otherwise. Indeed, we are told that DeLay himself asked that the changes be scrapped.

But this effort to dilute the ethics standards didn’t start here and won’t end here. Last year, as its very first order of business, the Republican leadership made it easier for lawmakers to accept junkets to charitable events and for them and their staffs to accept free food from lobbyists, prohibitions that had also been imposed by the GOP class of ’94.

And the leadership still relaxed the rules that will make ethics complaints harder to file and easier to dismiss.

Those young Republican visionaries of 1994 seem to have matured into the kind of politicians they warned us about.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)