Politics Over Ethics

Privately, some of his Republican colleagues are pressing House Speaker Dennis Hastert to rescind the changes to the ethics rules that the leadership rammed through in January.

GOP critics of the changes, part of a larger plan to protect House Republican Tom DeLay, say the changes are making the party look bad. And for good reason: The changes were bad.

To start, the leadership deposed the incumbent Republican chairman of the ethics panel who presided when the committee three times admonished DeLay, replacing the chairman with someone presumably more malleable. They also installed two DeLay loyalists and fund-raisers on the committee.

And the panel’s rules were changed. Previously, if the committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, deadlocked on a complaint, the investigation proceeded. Under the new rules, if the committee deadlocks on a complaint, it is automatically dismissed after five days. Members can demand an immediate hearing, leaving the committee no time to investigate, and a member under investigation and the witnesses can share a lawyer.

DeLay is facing questions about his travel, his ties with lobbyists, his fund raising and family members on the payroll of his political action committee. There well could be no fire there, but for the moment there sure is a lot of smoke.

The Republican right has rallied around DeLay, and while it’s nice that the choir applauds when he preaches to it, these aren’t the people he has to convince. DeLay is not under immediate threat of being forced to step down _ only a maverick moderate, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., has urged him to do so.

But there are signs of restlessness in the ranks. Ten retired Republican congressman have written an open letter urging the rules be rescinded. The deposed ethics chairman, Joel Hefly, R-Colo., has coauthored an op-ed column arguing likewise.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has called on the leader to step aside temporarily while the charges against him are investigated and, said Tancredo confidently, found “without merit.” DeLay himself is said to be eager to answer the charges. The problem, thanks to the rules changes, is how?

The Democrats, still angry that they were cut out of the whole process, won’t let the ethics committee meet. Thus, there’s no credible forum for DeLay to clear his name. And if this panel did meet under the current rules, many people wouldn’t believe them if they did clear him.

The Senate’s No. 3 Republican, Rick Santorum, R-Pa., says DeLay “has to come forward and lay out what he did and why he did it and let the people then judge for themselves.”

A reconstituted ethics panel operating under the old rules could do that for him.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)