Can a GOP loyalist do the right thing about Tom DeLay?

During his 10 years in Congress, Rep. Doc Hastings has earned a reputation as a low-key Republican loyalist who has fought to preserve funding for cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation and to protect agricultural interests in his sprawling central Washington district.

But Hastings now finds himself in the middle of the political firestorm surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and allegations that the Texas Republican’s fundraising and travel activities have violated House ethics rules.

Democrats and congressional watchdog organizations say Republican leaders have moved relentlessly to tighten their grip on the House Ethics Committee, which had traditionally been a bipartisan panel handling the thankless job of policing House members.

Since the first of the year, they say, the respected chairman of the committee was fired by Hastert and replaced with Hastings; two other Republican members of the panel were replaced by DeLay allies; and House ethics rules were changed to ensure the majority leader survives any challenge.

As Hastings assumed the chairmanship, he dismissed the committee’s chief counsel and another staff lawyer who had led an earlier investigation of DeLay.

“They are perpetuating a hoax on the American public,” West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan, the ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, said in a telephone interview.

Mollohan said he is concerned Republicans have changed the rules and stacked the deck to shield DeLay.

“This is not benign stuff. A little arcane, perhaps, but not benign,” said Mollohan.

Hastings and Republicans say the changes had nothing to do with DeLay, charging the Democrats were themselves trying to manipulate the ethics process for their own political gain.

“The most recent ethics changes weren’t made to protect any one member, they were designed to protect every member from those who would hijack the ethics process for partisan political purposes,” Hastings said in response to e-mail questions while traveling in the Middle East last week.

Hastings, who was a member of the committee and voted to admonish DeLay for ethics problems last year, said he did not seek the chairmanship but agreed to accept it because he deeply cares about the integrity of the House. He also promised to carry out his responsibilities without regard to “friendship, favor or political party.”

Since taking over, Hastings has called for a $1.7 million increase in funding for his committee and the addition of six new staff members. He also said he wants to publish a new House ethics manual and to ensure that House members are better educated about the ethics rules.

“The public has every right to expect the highest ethical standards from its representatives in Congress and I look forward to leading the Ethics Committee as it works to help meet those expectations during these challenging times,” he said.

Critics however, aren’t impressed.

“The changes on the committee, including Hastings, are designed to protect Tom DeLay, there is no question about that,” said Craig Hohlman of Public Citizen Congress Watch.

Though ethics disputes generally attract little attention outside of Washington, D.C., Hastings is one of three congressmen targeted in a $25,000 cable television ad campaign funded by the Public Campaign Action Fund, part of a coalition of eight groups tracking House ethics issues.

The 30-second ad, which began running Thursday, ends with an announcer saying, “Congressman Hastings. You’re the chair of the Ethics Committee. Do your job and clean up Congress … without DeLay.”

Dave Donnelly, a spokesman for the Public Campaign Action Fund, said Hastings needs to buck Republican leaders and “stand up and start an investigation” of DeLay.