Two months ago, the Republican members of the House of Representatives voted to repeal the rule that requires any of their leaders indicted for a criminal offense to relinquish his or her leadership post. That remarkable event occurred behind closed doors, without a recorded vote. Only a few members were willing to discuss their strange decision publicly: They said they had acted to protect the principle of the presumption of innocence and to prevent political manipulation by unscrupulous partisans.
The other day, those same House Republicans voted to reinstate the rule they had just repealed last November. Their lofty principles remained valid, they said, but they had reversed positions to deprive the Democrats of an issue. Through this supple maneuver, they had also quite conveniently avoided the possibility of an open, recorded vote on the rule. The Republicans also dropped several other proposed rule changes that would have effectively ended ethics enforcement in the House.
On both occasions, the individual conscience of nearly every Republican member happened to coincide perfectly with the orders of the day from Tom DeLay-the House Majority Leader and Republican boss whose fear of indictment by a Texas grand jury had prompted the rule changes in the first place.
As predictably as any gaggle of stooges in the old Soviet Parliament, the members had lauded their Majority Leader when they voted to vacate the indictment rule at his instigation-and then they praised him even more fervently after he commanded them to change their minds. Those Capitol Hill conservatives may be hard-line, but at least nobody can accuse them of being inflexible.
Perhaps it is churlish to mock the Republicans for reversing their original bad decision, no matter how mindless and submissive they seemed while doing so. Encouraging news about Congressional ethics is exceptionally rare. So is a victory for independent citizen action against arrogant authority.
What the latest rules reversal proves is that while Mr. DeLay may be crude, he certainly isn’t stupid. Blistered by criticism from editorial boards and nonpartisan groups, the Republican boss realized that he and his members are now vulnerable to the same moral arguments they once used to oust the Democrats from power. That danger was emphasized by a coalition of eight citizen organizations, ranging from Judicial Watch on the right to Public Campaign on the left, which gave voice to public outrage. Suddenly, as angry e-mails poured into their offices, the people’s elected representatives understood that voting to weaken ethics rules on the first day of the 109th Congress wouldn’t look so good.
Of course, an improvement in perception doesn’t necessarily indicate any change of character. And there is certainly more than one way to “reform” the system so that the House leadership can accept legalized bribes, strong-arm votes and misuse public agencies without fear of punishment. The easiest way to stop any high-minded meddling by ethical party-poopers is to rig the committee that is supposed to enforce the rules.
Alert readers will recall that last fall, the bipartisan House Ethics Committee unanimously voted to “admonish” Mr. DeLay for several rather blatant acts that brought discredit on Congress. While pushing for passage of the Medicare prescription-drug bill, he offered help for the Congressional campaign of Michigan Republican Nick Smith’s son, in exchange for Mr. Smith’s floor vote. According to the committee, he also “appeared” to tie campaign donations from a Kansas energy utility with action on legislation that the utility wanted. (What a shock!) And he misused Federal Aviation Administration personnel to pursue Texas Democratic legislators who had fled Austin to avoid voting on Mr. DeLay’s gerrymandering plan.
After being admonished three times for misconduct, Mr. DeLay is especially determined to prevent any further interference with his way of doing business. So he reportedly plans to remove Joel Hefley, the Colorado Republican who chairs the ethics committee, and replace him with Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who has given money to Mr. DeLay’s “defense fund.” There are warnings that Mr. DeLay will purge all the Republicans on the Ethics Committee, since they committed the unforgivable offense of scolding him.
Neutering the Ethics Committee is not merely a question of petty vengeance for Mr. DeLay. Prosecutor Ronnie Earle’s investigation of illicit corporate fund-raising by the DeLay political machine is continuing-and making progress. Two of the indicted corporations have filed plea agreements with the prosecutor, which suggests that they are cooperating with his probe. That could be very bad news for Mr. DeLay.
Yet another investigation is focused on Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who happens to be a close, longtime associate of the Majority Leader. Among Mr. Abramoff’s many alleged offenses is using money provided by two Indian tribes to take a key Republican committee chairman, Bob Ney of Indiana, on a $50,000 golf junket to Scotland.
Mr. DeLay is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but his craven colleagues shouldn’t help to intimidate those who may someday judge him.