Ethics Impasse

Sunday, April 10, 2005

NOW THAT Congress is back in town, it's time to fix the impasse that has turned the House of Representatives into an ethics-free zone. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has said he wants to meet with the ethics committee to rebut what he calls "fiction and innuendo" about his travel and other activities. But, thanks in large part to Mr. DeLay, the ethics committee isn't functioning. It's frozen because the five Democrats on the evenly divided panel have, understandably, balked at operating under rules dictated by the House GOP majority, contrary to the panel's bipartisan tradition.

A functioning committee might well find some of the criticism of Mr. DeLay to be overblown. For example, his 2001 trip to South Korea may have violated the House rule that prohibits travel financed by a "registered foreign agent." But it's not clear that Mr. DeLay had any way to know that the business-financed group footing the bill, the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, had registered as a foreign agent just days before the trip. Similarly, it may be unseemly that Mr. DeLay's wife and daughter have been paid more than $500,000 since 2001 by his political action and campaign committees, up from $350,000 when Roll Call reported on the matter two years ago. But he's not alone in putting relatives on the payroll; Roll Call listed 13 other lawmakers, of both parties, who did so.

Some of Mr. DeLay's other activities warrant more scrutiny, in particular his 2000 trip to Britain with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. One concern about the trip, which cost $70,000, has to do with its lavish and at least partly recreational (read: golf at St. Andrews) nature. The ethics committee says members can accept subsidized travel only if the "primary purpose of the trip, as determined in a reasonable manner," has to do with official activities and that members can accept only "expenses that are reasonably necessary for the officially connected activities on a trip to be accomplished."

Another issue involves its financing and the pending legislative interests of its underwriters. It was supposedly paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, on whose board Mr. Abramoff sat. In fact, however, the trip was underwritten by two Abramoff clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and eLottery Inc., which were then fighting an Internet gambling bill. Two months later, Mr. DeLay voted against the measure. The ethics committee says that if a nonprofit group pays for travel with donations "earmarked, either formally or informally," the real backers must be disclosed -- and that it's "advisable" for members to check on who's really paying. And it warns that sponsors shouldn't "merely pay for a trip that is in fact organized and conducted by someone else." Similar questions are raised by the report, in The Post last week, about Mr. DeLay's trip to Moscow in 1997.

It's impossible to know, without more facts, whether rules were violated. Mr. DeLay is right to say he'd like to discuss it with the ethics panel. The next step should be for the majority leader and his colleagues to rethink the situation that has made it impossible for that to happen. It would be nice if more than two Republicans would join the lonely two -- ousted ethics committee chair Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) -- who have signed on to the effort to write better ethics rules, in a fairer way.

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