IN THE PAST few months, the previously somnolent House ethics committee has roused itself to admonish Majority Leader Tom DeLay (D-Tex.) for various ethical missteps. "Beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct," the committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.), and Democratic vice chairman, Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), summed it up in a letter to the leader.

The committee found that Mr. DeLay's holding a golf fundraiser for energy companies just as the House was to consider energy legislation was "objectionable . . . because, at a minimum, [it] created an appearance that donors were being provided special access to you regarding the then-pending energy legislation." It also concluded that Mr. DeLay's drafting of Federal Aviation Administration officials to hunt down fleeing Democratic Texas state legislators who were foiling the leader's redistricting plans "raises serious concerns" about misusing government resources for partisan purposes. It said that Mr. DeLay improperly offered to endorse the son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) in exchange for Mr. Smith's vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill. And it cautioned the majority leader, "In view of the number of instances to date in which the Committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you have engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions. . . . "

Mr. DeLay responded with his customary sensitivity to ethical concerns, crowing that -- despite the tough language -- he had been cleared because the committee had not found a specific violation of House rules. Yesterday, though, Mr. DeLay and his allies held a triumphal news conference that made his previous statements look like a model of contrition. The occasion was the ethics committee's finding that Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.), the lame-duck lawmaker who summoned up the courage to file a complaint against the majority leader, had himself violated ethics rules because of the document's "excessive" and "inflammatory" charges. "I am grateful today that we finally have vindication of Mr. DeLay, and we have placed the blame where it properly belongs," said Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.). Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) absurdly termed the Bell complaint "one of the greatest abuses of the ethics process that the House of Representatives has ever seen" -- as if the ethics committee had not found grounds to admonish Mr. DeLay. Mr. DeLay himself insisted that he had simply been given a routine "mild warning" from the ethics committee. This transparent effort to rewrite history doesn't withstand scrutiny.

In truth, the ethics committee had grounds to criticize both Mr. DeLay and Mr. Bell. The Bell complaint was replete with hyperbolic language and extreme accusations. But it also prodded the ethics committee finally to conduct the investigation of Mr. DeLay that it should have been doing on its own. The committee has closed its doors to complaints filed by outside groups, meaning that only a brave lawmaker can file a complaint. Now its action against Mr. Bell, with its explicit and chilling warning to lawmakers that they risk being disciplined themselves for filing such complaints, means that only the bravest of lawmakers will dare. The committee added that it didn't intend "to inhibit any member from filing a complaint that he or she believes in good faith warrants consideration," but it's hard to see how it could avoid having such an effect. Meantime, the rules for the 109th Congress may be rewritten to make it even harder or riskier to bring ethics complaints. The last thing the House ethics process needs is less vigor.