Warning: Ethics-Free Zone

Monday, March 14, 2005

THIS MAY NOT sound like news, but the House of Representatives is now an ethics-free zone. To be precise, it has no mechanism for investigating or disciplining members who violate ethics rules. The proximate cause of this breakdown is the revolt by the five Democrats on the evenly divided ethics committee. Led by the ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), committee Democrats understandably balked last week at acceding to new rules for how the panel should conduct its business -- rules dictated by the GOP leadership and slanted toward making the ethics process, already tilted in favor of gridlock, even more feckless.

Last week's tumultuous events cap a year in which the committee took the extraordinary step of issuing three admonitions to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), infuriating the majority leader and his supporters. In the aftermath, the ethics panel's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), and two other committee Republicans were removed and replaced with those more loyal to the Republican team. In addition, the GOP leadership did its best to neuter the committee by rewriting the rules for the new Congress. When their own members were too embarrassed to go along, the leadership was forced to backtrack on some of the most egregious changes. It left in place three others, leading to the current standoff.

The ethics committee Democrats have two sets of legitimate gripes--one procedural, the other substantive. The procedural concern is the failure to adhere to the historical, bipartisan method of rewriting ethics rules. Instead, committee Republicans were bypassed, their ordinary role was usurped and the new, rigged rules were written in secret by the leadership.

The new rules also pose substantive concerns, the most critical of which provides for the automatic dismissal of a complaint if it's not acted on within as little as 45 days and no longer than 90 days. It's true that members shouldn't needlessly spend months under an ethics cloud, but the proposed cure is worse than the supposed disease: It's a hands-off, no-paper-trail way for members to let ethics complaints simply disappear. Another rule, to let a single lawyer represent multiple parties in an investigation, is a road map to obstruction, letting those involved in an inquiry get their stories straight in advance.

Republicans are now trying, laughably, to portray the impasse as the result of Democrats' refusal to "put the ethics process above partisan politics," as a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) put it. Democrats have no lack of partisanship on this issue, but the GOP spin is hard to take from the people who rigged the rules and changed the players when they didn't like the result. Mr. Mollohan now has a single Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), co-sponsoring his resolution. We would hope that -- especially in light of new ethical questions involving Mr. DeLay -- additional members of the majority will sign on, putting the long-term good of the institution ahead of the short-term interests of those with the greatest stake in an ineffectual ethics process.

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