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A Fresh Start?

We’re prepared to suspend our skepticism and go along with the idea that a deal on staffing reached late Thursday will finally allow the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to organize for the 109th Congress, just six short months after the session began.

And we are willing to believe that the chairman of the panel, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), has been sincere in his efforts to win funding for more staff to both educate Members and aides about the chamber’s rules and to enforce those rules. We likewise take at face value that his desire to see his top aide, Ed Cassidy, play an oversight role on the committee was intended to ensure that those goals were met, rather than an attempt to exert control over any probes focusing on GOP Members.

We’ll give the same benefit of the doubt to ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), accepting that his insistence that Cassidy not play any role in working with committee staff was intended to keep the panel truly bipartisan and not, as his critics suggest, an attempt to continue moving the goalposts and denying ethics a chance to organize in the hope that Democrats could prolong the focus on the ethical troubles of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

So, everything should be rosy now. The committee will promptly hire a new, nonpartisan chief counsel who will then be able to fill the new staff slots Hastings succeeded in gaining earlier this year. The top-to-bottom review of the rules for travel by House Members and aides can begin quickly, limiting the number of embarrassing headlines generated by “junkets.” DeLay will get the investigation into his travel he has said he welcomes.

Things should be this rosy, but the last six months give us little confidence that they will be. The first test will come immediately after Congress returns from the July Fourth recess. Will Members of the evenly divided ethics panel be able to agree on the committee’s top staffer quickly, setting all these other critical processes in motion? Or will there be yet another roadblock thrown up in the weeks ahead?

After July, Congress is scheduled for just four more weeks of business this year. The longer a review of travel practices is put off, the more chances exist for Members to be drawn into their own mini-scandals. Putting off a probe of DeLay or any other Member means the case will be considered in an election year, putting even more pressure on the committee’s deliberations. Perhaps there are some in the House who want to see exactly that.

But here’s a suggestion for leaders on both sides of the aisle. Look at the poll numbers and think about why Congress is being held in such low regard. And while you’re home this week, ask your constituents — not your donors or strategists — whether they want to see action on these matters now or next year. We look forward to hearing what they tell you.

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