WE HAVE, it seems, once again underestimated the speaker of the House and the lengths to which he is willing to go to neuter the ethics process and protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). When it looked in December as if J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was prepared to dump the inconveniently activist chairman of the House ethics committee, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), we published an editorial headlined "Ousting the Umpire." It turns out we didn't give the speaker enough credit for thinking big. On Wednesday -- and we're sure it was mere coincidence that it happened to be the day of the State of the Union address -- Mr. Hastert finally announced the new lineup for the ethics panel in the 109th Congress. Not only did he can Mr. Hefley, as expected; he also purged the two most recalcitrant -- we would say responsible -- other Republican committee members, Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio).
Mr. Hulshof had the unhappy task of presiding over an investigative subcommittee that looked at the actions of the ethically challenged majority leader. He also had the backbone, along with Mr. LaTourette, to object when the leadership moved to weaken the ethics rules.
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The speaker's spokesman, John Feehery, repeated his customary line that Mr. Hefley was being removed because he was at the end of the time he could serve under House rules -- though the speaker could easily waive the limit. As to Mr. Hulshof, Mr. Feehery told Deirdre Shesgreen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "It wasn't really removing him. It was more like relieving him of his duty. The speaker doesn't like to have people who are such talented legislators like him have to spend so much time on ethics." We can understand why -- what with a state prosecutor probing Mr. DeLay's campaign finance operation.
Mr. Hulshof had the guts to call a purge a purge. "I believe the decision was a direct result of our work in the last session," Mr. Hulshof told the Post-Dispatch. Mr. Hulshof noted that he had specifically asked the speaker to be allowed to stay on -- and that the Republicans who remained on the panel had actually served longer. Mr. LaTourette was similarly unconvinced. "I think clearly he changed the makeup of the committee because people were for whatever reason not happy with the committee," Mr. LaTourette told the Hill newspaper. Meanwhile, two of the new members -- Reps. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) -- contributed generously to Mr. DeLay's legal defense fund. Mr. Smith and Mr. Cole could well be called on to judge Mr. DeLay's conduct, because the committee postponed any action on Mr. DeLay's fundraising activities during the state probe. It will be incumbent on them, and on the panel's new chair, to demonstrate their diligence and independence despite the intense political pressure they are likely to face.