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An Ethics Offer

Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page A22

REPUBLICANS on the House ethics committee made a surprise offer yesterday to resolve a partisan standoff and launch an immediate investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). The proposal represents welcome progress on the part of committee Republicans. It is important that a thorough investigation be conducted of the various allegations swirling around Mr. DeLay, and it's a healthy sign that four of the five Republicans on the committee said they are prepared to take that step.

Ultimately, though, yesterday's offer isn't good enough. The plan presented by the panel chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), would leave in place the troubling rules rammed through the House earlier this year in a departure from the traditional method of changing ethics committee rules based on bipartisan agreement. The rules require that an ethics complaint be automatically dismissed if no action is taken within 45 days. Under the previous rules, a majority vote was needed to dismiss a complaint.

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The change proposed by Mr. Hastings is his commitment, "while I am chairman," to "in every instance grant a request" by the ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), to extend the review to three months. Mr. Hastings said he would provide more time beyond that "whenever necessary for bona fide investigation." He also promised that no complaint would be dismissed without a committee vote -- but, unlike in the past, a partisan split on the evenly divided panel would result in dismissal.

There's no doubt that this is an improvement. The promise of a vote at least demands some accountability from committee members, and the guarantee of three months and potentially more to investigate a complaint is positive. But the setup would still tilt the ethics panel, which after all has not been disposed to hyperactivity, in favor of inaction. If members know that a deadlocked vote will simply end the matter once and for all, they will have less incentive to reach bipartisan accommodation.

A more fundamental problem is that -- were the Democrats to accept this offer, and they've said they won't -- the panel would be operating, now and in future Congresses, under the flawed rules imposed unilaterally on the Democratic minority. Even if Mr. Hastings's proposal were perfect, it would just amount to an informal and temporary understanding; it wouldn't bind any future chairmen. Ethics chairmen come and go; just ask Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who was ousted after the committee, under his leadership, repeatedly admonished Mr. DeLay for ethical missteps. That's why it's important to have the right rules in place, and to get them in place the right way.

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