THE HOUSE REPUBLICAN Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) had a none-too-subtle warning this week for Democrats thinking about filing an ethics complaint against the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee: "I think it would be unwise for them to do that." Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was even more direct: "I find it very dangerous for the comity of the House for people to play politics by filing ethics charges that have no basis to be filed and no foundation." Translation: If you complain about our guy, we'll complain about yours.
This is no way to run an ethics process. There have been serious and credible allegations, detailed in this newspaper, that Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) and members of his staff, who are investigating mutual fund practices, pressured the mutual fund industry to dismiss its Democratic lobbyist and hire a Republican. Most disturbing was this sentence in the Post report: "Six sources, both Republicans and Democrats who all declined to be identified, said certain members of Oxley's staff have suggested the congressional probe might ease up if the mutual fund trade group complies with their wishes." The article named one former Oxley staffer who now works for Mr. Blunt, as well as the committee's chief of staff, Robert U. Foster III. The correct question here is not should the ethics committee investigate but rather: How in the world could it not?
Mr. DeLay had an answer: "Ethics charges filed because of . . . an article written in the newspaper with no proof or basis to it is very, very dangerous in this House, and that's why we have an ethics committee set the way that we do, and to protect members from frivolous charges." In fact, the purpose of the ethics committee is not to protect members -- though that is how it has functioned far too often. It was designed for matters such as this, and it is important to remember that its jurisdiction extends to House staff. Mr. Oxley's spokeswoman dismisses the report as "rumors," but it would be irresponsible of the committee not to go further, given the allegations' seriousness. It should interview Mr. Oxley, his staff and other knowledgeable sources to determine whether there was a breach of ethical standards. Those were most recently laid out in 1999, after Mr. DeLay pressured an electronics industry group not to hire a former Democratic congressman. After that incident the ethics committee issued a reminder about "one of the fundamental rules of ethics for government service": that House members and staff "are prohibited from taking or withholding any official action on the basis of the partisan affiliation . . . of the involved individuals."
The lobbying group Common Cause wrote to the committee Tuesday asking for an investigation. But under the protective rules the House has set up for itself, the ethics committee is not required to respond to a complaint from an outside group -- only to one that comes from a member. As a result, House Democrats are debating whether to file a complaint of their own -- a move that could set off a retaliatory round of ethics complaints against Democrats. If that happens, so be it. Meanwhile, the ethics committee has the authority to act on its own, and it should.