Congress offered a rare "profile in courage" this week when Rep. Joel Hefley took on the man who symbolizes the poisonous partisanship of the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Hefley knew he was likely to pay a price for his defiance, but he challenged DeLay anyway. And, miracle of miracles, DeLay had to retreat a few steps.
Hefley, a 10-term Republican from Colorado, is no giant as a legislator, and his views are hardly out of step with the House GOP majority. He's a conservative who says in his official biography that his goals are to "strengthen the military, protect federal lands and reduce taxes." Four years ago he was given the thankless job of chairing the House ethics committee. Perhaps because he got his start in life as a cowboy, Hefley was just ornery enough to take the ethics job seriously. And that meant investigating DeLay.
Three times last year, Hefley's ethics committee admonished DeLay for financial and political transgressions. All three instances illustrated DeLay's brand of power politics: He hosted a golf fundraiser at the Homestead resort so energy lobbyists who paid enough money could meet him just before the House considered an energy bill; he muscled a fellow Republican to vote for a GOP Medicare proposal by promising to support the man's son in a political race; and he used the Federal Aviation Administration to try to round up missing Democrats for a quorum call in the Texas legislature so that it could pass a controversial redistricting plan that enhanced Republican control of Congress.
In admonishing DeLay, the House ethics committee relied on a provision that says members can be held to account if their behavior does not "reflect creditably on the House." In other words, Hefley and his colleagues were trying to hold the majority leader to a higher ethical standard than whether his conduct was flat-out illegal. So what did DeLay do when his ethics were challenged? He and his allies tried to gut the ethics rules. They had already asked House Republicans in November to change a rule so that DeLay could continue as majority leader even if he were indicted. Now DeLay & Co. wanted protection from the ethics committee. They proposed to scrap the "reflect creditably" standard -- so that last year's admonitions couldn't be repeated.
And then a strange thing happened. Led by Hefley, House Republicans began to get angry at their leadership for making them walk the plank to protect DeLay. Hefley said he would vote against the new ethics rules if they were brought to a vote. Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, described the proposed ethics changes as "a grave mistake."
DeLay is nothing if not a vote-counter. And by Monday he knew that he risked defeat if he pushed ahead with all the ethics changes. So he reversed course. He told House Republicans that he wanted them to reinstate the old indictment rule. And he abandoned the plan to scrap the "reflect creditably" standard. Unfortunately, the GOP stuck with a third rule change, laughably called the "presumption of innocence rule," that will allow one party to block an ethics investigation in a party-line vote.
For daring to stand up to DeLay, Hefley will lose his post as House ethics chairman. The GOP leadership says the time limit for his chairmanship has expired, but it would probably have replaced him anyway. DeLay didn't get his nickname, "the Hammer," by playing softball -- or letting defiant committee chairmen keep their seats. Even on the day Hefley forced him to retreat, DeLay told Mike Allen of The Post, "We're winning, and we're going to keep on winning."
That's the kind of winning-is-everything, take-no-prisoners style that DeLay has come to embody. "He symbolizes a way of life in Washington where there's no role for those who disagree with you -- they're not adversaries, they're enemies," says Fred Wertheimer, whose group Democracy 21 has been DeLay's most aggressive critic.
What motivated Hefley to challenge DeLay was partly a fear that the House Republicans were becoming like the Democrats in the days when they exercised total control. Hefley says he has never forgotten the Democrats' "arrogance" when he first came to town in 1987. "It was a situation that was deplorable," he says. When DeLay began trying to muscle the ethics committee, Hefley says, it brought back old memories. "That was an overreaching, showing an arrogance that was not becoming." He said he and other Republicans, who had come to Washington hoping to clean up Democratic excesses, felt: "Maybe now we're slipping in the wrong direction."
Hefley decided to do something about it. He will pay the price, but he doesn't seem to mind. He knows he did the right thing. May his number increase.