Moving forward on ethics

A Times Editorial
Published April 29, 2005

Thanks mostly to the hubris of an ethically-challenged Tom DeLay, Republicans have been forced to scrap rules that made it easier to shield lawmakers from investigations by the House Ethics Committee. Democrats had shut down the committee in protest, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert finally led the retreat. Now the committee can vigorously investigate DeLay and hold other members from both parties accountable for their actions.

Reverting back to the old rules, which allow the bipartisan committee to investigate allegations of unethical behavior even on a tie vote, was largely sparked by reports of improperly financed travel by DeLay. Accused of accepting trips paid for by lobbyists and foreign agents - both violations of House ethics policies - DeLay has endured a steady drip of damaging revelations, including a Washington Post story Sunday that two of his trips credited to a nonprofit group were paid with a lobbyist's credit card.

The DeLay controversy has had a beneficial side effect. It has forced all House members re-examine their behavior and take more responsibility to discover and disclose who really foots the bill for their journeys. The biggest issue: Taking trips sponsored by nonprofit groups which also accept large donations from lobbyists and others barred from paying directly for congressional travel.

A 2003 trip by Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, illustrates the confusion. He was cited in a Washington Times column last week for a $1,946 trip from Orlando to West Palm Beach. Feeney listed a registered lobbyist as the sponsor, but he amended the documentation last week to name a California-based nonprofit group. Feeney's staff says the initial listing was an error; the conference event planner is married to a lobbyist, and her company was mistakenly listed as the sponsor. But the trip highlights how such arrangements can appear designed to skirt House ethics rules.

The irony for Democrats is that the fight over returning to the old ethics rules may help them far more than the actual implementation. A recent study by the nonpartisan PoliticalMoneyLine watchdog group noted Democrats took more sponsored trips than Republicans over the past five years. Republicans also have tried hard to link votes by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to trips sponsored by groups that benefitted from her decisions.

The GOP's reversal on ethics rules also was an acknowledgement that DeLay's continued fight for survival and his vicious attacks on the courts are hurting the party. His travel aside, the majority leader still faces a growing list of ethical questions, sparking concern from conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. It will take more than a trip on Air Force One and a back-pat from President Bush to counter those criticisms.

Many Democrats concede the worst thing for them may be for DeLay to lose power before the 2006 elections, because he has become the national face of Republican extremism. The majority leader turns a deaf ear to the concerns of moderate voters about meddling in the Terri Schiavo case and appearing to support the intimidation of judges.

Hastert portrayed his change of heart on the ethics rules as a way to help DeLay resolve his problems. It also could hasten the majority leader's demise. The reality is Republicans were losing political ground, and the speaker was under pressure from members of his own party to do something. Restoring the ethics rules is a pragmatic way to move forward and a healthy development for Congress, regardless of what happens to DeLay.