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After exchanging traditional compliments and making appropriate memorial observances for Asian tsunami victims and for their esteemed colleague, the late Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), House Members wasted no time last week reverting to their normal rancorous state. The subject was ethics, and the net outcome was a retreat.

Under pressure from rank-and-file Republicans — and after an avalanche of criticism from Democrats, editorial writers and ethics watchdogs — GOP leaders did abandon efforts to change House and party rules to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) from possible future sanction. But then they made it unmistakably clear that the House ethics process henceforward will be a partisan undertaking, not a bipartisan one.

Specifically, the GOP pushed through a House rules change whereby the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct cannot proceed with an investigation against any Member without a majority vote — i.e., without the support of at least one Republican. And then, by rejecting reappointment for Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), GOP leaders made it clear that they want Republicans on the panel to toe the party line on ethics.

The House ethics process has been pathetically weak in recent years, with the committee basically taking up investigations and imposing sanctions only when a Member was convicted of a crime. Ever since 1997, the committee has been barred from accepting complaints from outside groups and restricted to investigating complaints launched by a Member. Until last year, under a dubious truce between party leaders, Members desisted from filing complaints even in widely publicized cases that cried out for investigation.

The truce was broken in less-than-optimal fashion last June when freshman Democratic Rep. Chris Bell (Texas) — who by then had already lost in a primary forced by DeLay’s re-redistricting plan — filed a shotgun-style complaint against DeLay based largely on news reports. The committee, after intensive labor, issued a series of admonishments — its lowest level of sanction — against DeLay for bringing discredit against the House, rather than for breaking any specific House rule or law. (For good measure, Bell himself, and others, came in for admonishment, too.)

The wrist-slaps brought down intraparty wrath on Chairman Hefley, and leaders resolved to put an end to minor reprimands — and also to protect DeLay from having to step down from his leadership position in the event he is indicted, as some of his political associates in Texas have been, for fundraising violations. But GOP Members took such flak for those moves that DeLay himself moved to rescind them, professing that he did not expect to be indicted, anyway.

A Member can still be sanctioned for bringing discredit on the House, but the majority requirement makes it much less likely that anyone will be investigated at all unless his or her offenses are so serious that the committee simply can’t look in the other direction. Hefley’s replacement as chairman — his term was up, and he could have been reappointed, but he wasn’t — can be expected to make any Republican on the committee pause before taking any action that might offend the Republican leadership. The bottom line is that an already weak ethics system is now weaker yet.

Editor’s Note: Roll Call did err in writing that Bell received an admonishment from the ethics committee in this editorial. Instead, in a Nov. 18, 2004, letter from the committee to Bell, Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) wrote that Bell had “violated Committee Rule 15(a)(4) in a number of respects.” That rule states that ethics complaints “shall not contain innuendo, speculative assertions and conclusory statements.”

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