Doing Right on Ethics

Friday, April 29, 2005

SOMETIMES THE system works -- even if it takes too much time, noise and anguish. That is the happy lesson of the decision by the House Republican leadership to roll back the changes in ethics rules that were bullied through the body earlier this year. This uncharacteristic reversal may be portrayed as a political victory for Democrats. But that shortsighted analysis shouldn't give pause to House Republicans, who, however belatedly and reluctantly, did the right thing. In the end, their party, the institution in which they serve and the people they represent will be better off for it.

The move is important, first, because it clears the way for the House ethics committee to function again. The committee had been paralyzed by the understandable refusal of the panel's Democrats to operate under the new regime. The committee's first order of business, as four of its five Republican members already have agreed, ought to be an examination of the activities of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.): how his trips with lobbyist Jack Abramoff were generated; what Mr. DeLay knew about their shady financing; whether they were legitimate fact-finding efforts or a flimsy excuse for golf junkets; and the connection, if any, between the legislative interests of those financing Mr. DeLay's travels and his official actions.

More broadly, the rules rollback is significant because it offers some hope that there are limits to the because-we-can mentality that has increasingly afflicted House Republicans. As they settle complacently into majority status, GOP members in the House are becoming the highhanded oppressors they once decried when they were in the minority and Democrats were doing the abusing. The ethics rules were unacceptable in part because of the manner in which they were shoved down the throat of the Democratic minority. This represented a departure from a tradition of bipartisanship in writing ethics panel rules. It was wrong, as many Republicans knew at the time -- notably the incoming chairman of the ethics panel, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, who did not cast a vote on the rules package.

Finally, the change is right on the merits. There is an inherent tension between making it too easy to file and act on complaints and making it too easy to avoid or dismiss them. Critics of the old rules argue that they could leave lawmakers in an ethics limbo, because a complaint that wasn't acted on could linger on the committee's agenda. Critics of the now-abandoned rules contend that they would have let the panel get rid of complaints too freely; charges would have been automatically dismissed if the panel, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, failed to act within a specified time. In our view, the old rules are preferable. The ethics committee historically has done not too much but too little. Rules that let complaints disappear through impasse and inaction would result in the opposite of the robust ethics enforcement that the House needs.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company