Tom DeLay and Banana Republic Politics

When last we left the House ethics committee it was mired in impasse. It still is.

When Congress convened in January, the Republican leadership, without consulting the Democrats or their own people, rammed through a set of rules changes that basically made it easy to kill ethics investigations.

The leadership also replaced the Republican chairman who had presided the previous year when the committee had admonished House GOP leader Tom DeLay three times for various ethical mishaps and appointed some new members who were DeLay loyalists and fund-raisers.

Not surprisingly, the changes were viewed as a heavy-handed attempt to protect DeLay. And that would have been fine except the Republican leader soon ran into a fresh ethical problem: His close associations with an Indian gambling lobbyist under criminal investigation. Suddenly, DeLay and the leadership really needed the ethics committee; it was the only way he could clear his name and get out from under the drip-drip of accusations.

The ethics committee is unique in that it is equally divided between the two parties, meaning either side could block the other and the Democrats did, holding out for the rules changes to be rescinded, which they were last month.

But in the meantime a staffing dispute between the chairman, Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and the ranking Democrat, Alan Mollohan, W.Va., had arisen and the committee was again deadlocked, where it remains today.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said this week the committee had to “get up and running.” Here’s why: A defense contractor who had every reason in the world to ingratiate himself with GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham bought the powerful defense appropriator’s house back home in California for $1.6 million and sold it nine months later at a $700,000 loss. Since this happened just as the contractor’s fortunes took off and at a time when it was thought impossible to lose money in the San Diego-area real estate market, the whole deal looked fishy, indeed demanding of an ethics investigation.

And then there are mounting allegations that many members of both parties, not just DeLay, may have violated the rules against lobbyist-paid travel.

But the ethics panel has met only one day this year, opened no new cases, and may not meet for months, maybe not at all this year.

If we were a banana republic, this would all be very amusing, but we’re not a banana republic. Are we?

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)