A Good Start on Ethics

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

THE HOUSE ETHICS committee, after a rocky and belated start, got itself organized last week, and the first news out of the panel was positive: The two Republican members who contributed to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's legal defense fund announced that they won't participate in any ethics investigation of Mr. DeLay (R-Tex.). Rep. Lamar S. Smith of Texas, who has given $10,000 to the fund, and Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who contributed $5,000 last year, said they would step aside and let GOP alternates take their place on the evenly divided panel.

This is the right course. Both members insisted that they could judge Mr. DeLay fairly. But, as Mr. Cole said in a statement, "it is important for the committee and for the House that its actions be viewed as nonpartisan and objective by the members of this institution and by the public." Writing checks to help Mr. DeLay defray the costs of ethics-related investigations and lawsuits carries a connotation that the majority leader is being treated unfairly and deserves financial support to defend himself.

Some critics said that this wasn't good enough -- that Republican panel members who received contributions from Mr. DeLay also should recuse themselves. "The foxes should not be guarding the hen house," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean proclaimed, calling on the three other Republican members of the committee to step aside. But Mr. Dean's call reflects a misunderstanding of the congressional ethics process, which empowers the foxes to be guardians. It's a system that calls on lawmakers to pass judgment on other lawmakers; to disqualify recipients of campaign contributions would make the process dysfunctional in the case of congressional leaders. Panel members have made the right calls so far.

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