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Slapping DeLay

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is practically the Hollywood caricature of a Washington hard-ball power player — ruthless, intimidating, shrewd, partisan, constantly skating close to or over the edge of propriety. He makes no secret that he wants what he wants — Republican domination of Congress and the nation — and he’ll do what it takes to get it.

Three times now, his conduct has caused the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to admonish him — which is to say, publicly slap him on the wrist and tell him not to misbehave again. But he keeps on going — in the latest case, saying that ethics complaints against him have been “dismissed” and that, anyway, they arose from “relentless personal attacks” against him by Democrats.

And the ethics committee has done little to give him pause. He has been “admonished” over three matters in a week, but we are again left to ask, what does that mean?

On Thursday, the committee’s chairman and ranking member, Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), wrote DeLay to accuse him of “overaggressive pursuit” of his party’s legislative agenda.

The two wrote that “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 to assure that you are in full compliance at all times with the applicable House Rules and standards of conduct.”

The committee’s words were sufficiently strong to attract heavy criticism from Democrats and ethical watchdog groups — including, in fact, calls for DeLay to step down from his leadership post. These are being brushed off by Republicans, of course, because DeLay has succeeded in advancing his party’s agenda and all but ensuring that the GOP retains its majority.

While the ethics committee has shown the temerity to chastise the powerful leader, it has done so in the vaguest possible way. “Admonishment” is not even listed in the House Ethics Manual as an official ethics sanction, unlike “reproval,” “reprimand,” “censure” and “expulsion.” Moreover, last week the committee said that DeLay’s offer of support for Rep. Nick Smith’s (R-Mich.) son “could support a finding” that DeLay violated House rules, but it did not actually find he had done so. And, Thursday’s letter charged DeLay only with “creating the appearance” that energy lobbyists were gaining special access by donating to a DeLay-related political action committee and arousing “serious concerns” about use of executive branch resources for partisan political purposes.

Clearly, the panel needs to provide very specific, practical guidelines if it wants to prevent them from engaging in “overaggressive” or other troubling behavior.

The upshot of the committee’s actions is tantamount to issuing a press release. It may have minor political effect, but it’s not likely to change anyone’s conduct — especially DeLay’s.