Playing Games With Ethics

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

January 5, 2005

House Republicans, who have been calling for a return to moral values across the nation, avoided total embarrassment Monday by reversing their 2-month-old decision to permit Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to keep his post even if he's indicted by a grand jury. But don't be fooled. On Tuesday, they eviscerated congressional ethics rules with a more insidious approach.

It's not as though the House ethics committee has been much of a watchdog. Democrats and Republicans have been observing a truce in bringing complaints. But anything less than complete docility is apparently too much for House Republicans.

They were stunned and infuriated last year when a bipartisan ethics committee, led by Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), unanimously admonished DeLay three times for flagrant abuses. They vowed vengeance, and now they will get it. Hefley is being replaced by a DeLay loyalist. What's more, on Tuesday the House approved a proposal to limit the ethics panel's power to initiate investigations. According to House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas), the change "restores a presumption of innocence."

Actually, all it does is enfeeble the committee further. The change states that a majority of committee members must support opening an investigation. Currently, if the committee, which has 10 members, deadlocks, an investigation can proceed. The result is to make investigations even less likely.

If ethical lapses in Congress were rare, that might be good enough, but there is plenty that the committee should investigate. For example, it should continue its informal inquiry into whether Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, had improper dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including pushing legislation on his behalf.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is leading a probe that has exposed allegations that Abramoff and his associate, Michael Scanlon, a former press aide to DeLay, bilked millions of dollars from Indian tribes. In addition, the panel should continue to look into whether DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee illegally used corporate donations.

House Republicans are demonstrating a sad fact of life in Washington: Ethics are seen as something you practice when you're out of power. The party profited in 1994 by exposing Democratic corruption and painting itself as the clean alternative. Now we'll doubtless hear similarly pious rhetoric from the minority Democrats as Republicans make a mockery of their own standards. Both parties should realize that the voters don't much like corrupt politicians, regardless of which side is in the majority.