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Vote-Trading Ethics

Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page A24

THE STRANGE story of Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) and the Medicare vote has ended with a few surprises -- and that's not even including the sudden, stealthy release of the House ethics committee's report on the matter minutes before the start of last week's presidential debate.

One surprise is that the story, at least in the ethics committee's account, turned out to be less outrageous than advertised, at times by Mr. Smith himself -- and as a result, Mr. Smith was chastised by the committee. Mr. Smith, you may recall, is a retiring congressman who wanted his son, Brad, to succeed him. He also opposed the administration's Medicare prescription drug plan as House Republican leaders hunted desperately for votes. Mr. Smith charged that "bribes and special deals" were dangled to get lawmakers on board and that he was offered financial support -- he specifically mentioned $100,000 -- for his son's campaign if he switched.

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But Mr. Smith told the investigative subcommittee that he was infuriated by the hardball tactics and had consequently exaggerated what happened. From the outside, it's hard to judge whether Mr. Smith recanted under pressure (there's no evidence of that in the report) or whether he was simply reckless in his use of words; either way, he was notably uncooperative with the committee and deserved to be rebuked.

Another surprise -- or maybe not, come to think of it -- was that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who hadn't previously surfaced in the Smith matter, turned out to be involved in the mess. Mr. DeLay acknowledged that he offered to personally endorse Brad Smith in exchange for Mr. Smith's vote in favor of the Medicare bill. With the younger Smith in a primary contest -- one he eventually lost -- Mr. DeLay's backing, and the financial support that would probably have accompanied it, was a valuable commodity.

But as the committee acknowledged in its thoughtful report, this is a novel and somewhat gray ethical area. As the committee analyzed the matter, it's an "accepted practice for legislators to trade legislative votes" -- say, your dam for my crop support. In addition, it's common to urge members to vote a certain way for the sake of party discipline -- and every lawmaker understands what the committee described as the "inherent" and "unspoken" consequences of toeing the party line, or failing to. Where the committee found Mr. DeLay went too far was in offering, as an explicit quid pro quo for his vote, something of purely personal interest to Mr. Smith. Its public admonition of Mr. DeLay was rather mild, but this seems appropriate under the unsettled and unusual circumstances involved, and the committee should be commended for its willingness to take on a powerful majority leader.

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