Congressional ethics: An oxymoron?

Doc Hastings has spent a dozen years in Congress raising money to clean up a nuclear weapons plant in his district. Now he’s got another radioactive matter on his hands.

Quiet almost to the point of reclusiveness, the Washington state Republican has taken charge of one of the most thankless jobs in politics – investigating the alleged wrongdoing of colleagues as chairman of the House ethics committee.

The towering decision his committee faces is its next step in a continuing ethics swirl around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has one of the most powerful jobs in politics.

A former small-town paper supplier, Hastings, 64, is perhaps most notable for blending into the scenery on Capitol Hill. In an institution where members hunger for the microphones, he’s never held a Washington news conference during his 10 years in the House.

Whether seeking support for homestate apple growers or cleanup money for the sprawling Hanford nuclear reservation that once produced two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium, Hastings has built a reputation on tending to constituent concerns more than on running with the loud crowd on national issues. In the process, he’s proved you don’t have to be loud to get ahead on Capitol Hill.

Those who have worked closely with Hastings caution people not to be fooled by his calm demeanor.

“Quiet but competent is how I would describe him – and solid as a rock,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a longtime friend. He predicted Hastings will prove wrong the doubters who suspect he was given the chairmanship as part of a Republican plan to go easy on their majority leader.

Those doubts surely exist.

“If he can’t somehow transcend the politics and fix the ethics process, then he will be seen as just a partisan player,” said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a group that advocates replacing DeLay as the House’s No. 2 Republican.

“On the one hand, he’s the one man who could restore a functioning bipartisan committee again, yet it appears he was picked for the job to dismantle the ethics process entirely,” Pingree said

She said Hastings’ decision to replace two committee aides who participated in inquiries producing three admonitions of DeLay “looks very much like a purge.”

Besides a new chairman, the ethics panel includes two new GOP members who gave money to DeLay’s legal defense fund.

Some may mistake Hastings’ blandness for weakness, friends say, especially given his background as a small-town businessman who did not graduate from college.

Hastings was nicknamed Doc by his brother, who couldn’t pronounce his given name, Richard. He showed he can be powerfully effective in 2000 when he used his position on the House Rules Committee to block a farm bill until it included market-loss payments to the orchard industry, a large employer in his district.

Members of both parties praised Hastings for his handling of a complaint against former Ohio Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat who was expelled from the House for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. Hastings led a subcommittee that investigated Traficant.

“He is solidly grounded and very fair and honest and determined that he get the job done,” Walden said.

Some Democrats agree.

“Chairman Hastings is a very capable man,” said Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the ethics panel. “He has always been temperate in his dealings and reasoned in his judgment.”

Hastings, true to his reputation, declined requests to talk about his new assignment.

In congressional testimony, he said he is determined to boost the culture of ethics in the House. Hastings proposed a 50 percent increase in the panel’s budget and more staff to improve its investigative capability.

“Recent events have underscored the importance of providing the highest quality ethics education, training, advice and information to both members and staff,” he said, in an apparent reference to DeLay’s situation and the standoff over rules.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., appointed Hastings to the ethics post in early February, after ousting Colorado Rep. Joel Hefley in a move widely seen as an effort to tighten control over the ethics panel after its criticism of DeLay.

Many who know him say Hastings was not eager for the ethics assignment, which is generally seen as a no-win job. Besides DeLay, Hastings also may have to deal with a complaint against Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat involved in an eight-year-old dispute over an intercepted cell phone call.

Hastings was willing to take the ethics job out of loyalty to Hastert, friends say, but also to move toward his real goal of becoming chairman of the Rules Committee, which has life-and-death control over nearly all legislation that comes through the House.

“It’s just guff about how the speaker appointed someone who will do his will,” said former Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash. “It doesn’t work that way. The speaker appointed someone he has a lot of faith and confidence in. That’s how it works, and that’s what will happen with Doc.”

On the Net: Hastings’ House Web site:

© 2005 The Associated Press