Hastings May Head Emasculated House Ethics Panel

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is under strong consideration to become the next chairman of the House ethics committee as Speaker Dennis Hastert works to recast a panel stripped of power to discipline members of Congress.

Hastings would replace Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., as head of the committee, which twice last year issued reports rebuking Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

Several GOP sources said Hastings had met with Hastert to discuss the chairmanship of the panel.

“I really haven’t made any decisions yet,” the speaker said Tuesday evening. Hastings, the panel’s senior Republican behind Hefley, could not be reached for comment.

One official said an announcement was possible as early as this week. All of the GOP sources agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, noting that no decision had been made.

The panel’s actions regarding DeLay irritated several members of the GOP rank and file, who voiced criticism of Hefley at the time.

Hastert, R-Ill., has long signaled he intends to appoint a new chairman. Aides have said that leaving Hefley in charge would require a waiver of House rules because of the length of Hefley’s tenure – an interpretation the Colorado lawmaker said was subject to dispute.

Customarily, lawmakers are reluctant to serve on the ethics panel because it can require confronting painful decisions about the fate of colleagues in Congress.

One official said Hastert intended to appoint other new members in addition to a new chairman. The committee is comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

Hastings, a veteran member of the panel, played a role in its investigation of former Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, in 2002. Traficant was expelled following his conviction on federal charges of bribery and racketeering.

That case spawned virtually no partisan controversy in the House.

The controversy involving DeLay was a different matter.

In one case, the panel said DeLay had created the appearance of linking political donations to a legislative favor and had improperly involved the Federal Aviation Administration in a Texas political dispute.

In the other, the ethics committee chastised the leader for offering to support the House candidacy of then Republican Rep. Nick Smith’s son in return for the lawmaker’s vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The panel said DeLay did not break House rules.

In a subsequent report, it rebuked DeLay’s accuser, then-Rep. Chris Bell, saying he had made exaggerated misconduct allegations against the GOP leader.

On the Net:

House ethics committee: http://www.house.gov/ethics/