IT TOOK six months too long, and way more hassle and heartache than necessary, but the House ethics committee appears finally to be up and running. For most of the 109th Congress, the House was an ethics-free zone, first because of a dispute over the ethics committee's rules, then because of a logjam over staffing. Both of these matters have now been resolved - and in the correct way. Committee chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) did the right thing when he acceded to the views of the panel's ranking member, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan ((D-W.Va.), on how the committee should be staffed.
Mr. Hastings had wanted his longtime chief of staff to serve as the committee's majority staff director. Mr. Mollohan refused, saying that the committee's staff needed to be chosen with the agreement of both sides and that, while the chairman and ranking member could each have a staff member help them with the panel's work, those aides couldn't supervise other staffers. This makes sense because of the unique nature of the ethics panel and the need to have its staff be free of any tinge of partisanship.
That clears the way for the committee to get to work, and none too soon. The first order of business is to hire an experienced, capable and independent-minded lawyer to serve as staff director and chief counsel. With an investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in the offing and other matters looming, it's critical to have the right person in this job - someone who has not only the investigative and prosecutorial background to do it well, but also the fortitude to resist whatever political pressures may come to bear. And it's important to get the DeLay inquiry started as promptly as possible.
This has been, to put it mildly, a rough patch for the ethics panel, from the ouster of its previous chairman to the uproar over the attempt to rewrite its rules to the staffing dispute. After months of bickering, the relationship between Mr. Hastings and Mr. Mollohan looks right now like an arranged marriage gone bad. After reaching the agreement, though, the two men issued a statement announcing their "intent to establish a committee and process that reflect credibly on the House, its members and the public they serve." As much as this may be a triumph of hope over experience, we look forward to seeing that happen, better late than never.