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Ousting the Umpire

Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A26

WHEN IT STARTED to look as though House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) might be indicted by a prosecutor in his home state, the House GOP rule requiring indicted members to relinquish their leadership positions became rather inconvenient. House Republicans responded by junking the rule. During the last Congress, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Ethics Committee, proved himself something of an inconvenience as well when it came to Mr. DeLay: Under his leadership, the all-too-often slumbering committee bestirred itself to admonish the majority leader for an array of ethical missteps. Now Mr. Hefley risks meeting the same fate as the discarded rule. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is poised to decide whether to let Mr. Hefley continue in the thankless task of heading the committee. According to The Post's Mike Allen, Mr. Hastert is leaning toward removing Mr. Hefley.

Mr. Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, says that no decision has been made about Mr. Hefley's continued tenure and that, if he were to be removed from the committee, it would be for "no other reason" than that he has served as chairman since 2001. "That's a pretty long time," Mr. Feehery told us. "It's tough duty being an ethics chairman." Mr. Feehery said later that House rules would bar Mr. Hefley from remaining on the committee -- a tortured reading of clear rules that in any event could be waived by the speaker.

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The speaker's respect for the rules and his solicitude for his colleague is touching but misplaced. From all indications, Mr. Hefley would like to remain on the ethics job. So it's hard to see his ouster, if it occurs, as anything other than payback for calling Mr. DeLay's fouls -- and as a means of avoiding other tough judgments in the future. That's not merely a theoretical possibility. The committee already has some sensitive matters on its plate, including Ohio Republican Robert W. Ney's dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and it could find itself again delving into Mr. DeLay, once the Texas prosecutor has completed his probe. Junking the umpire because you don't like his calls is no more attractive than changing the rules of the game when they turn out not to be to your advantage. If this is indeed the speaker's inclination, we hope he reconsiders.

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