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No More Delays

The indictment in Texas of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay may or may not be just a “partisan vendetta,” as DeLay claims. But this much is clear to us: It should not be used as an excuse for the House ethics committee to further delay its investigation of the charges lodged against the Texas Republican.

Those charges — that DeLay accepted travel paid for by indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff — have nothing to do with the charges that he conspired with others to funnel illegal corporate money to state legislative candidates in 2002. DeLay long ago asked for an ethics investigation of the travel charges. And he deserves one.

In the meantime, even DeLay’s allies agree — at least privately — that the House was wise earlier this year to undo the House Republican Conference rules change that would have allowed DeLay to stay on as Majority Leader if he got indicted in Texas. The reversal came after GOP Members received static from constituents and local newspapers. The constituents and newspapers were right, and the GOP deserves credit for reversing course.

Now that DeLay has stepped down, at least temporarily, the House will be able to grapple with important legislation without having a Majority Leader spending a large part of his time and energy fighting criminal charges.

DeLay says he will exercise his rights under Texas’ speedy-trial law, with the hope of being exonerated and back in the leadership by the end of the year. While in a practical sense that schedule looks overly ambitious, there are reasons to think he might ultimately prevail in court. The indictment against him cites no evidence that DeLay actually directed political associates to direct corporate money to state candidates. The corporate money was funneled to one Republican National Committee account, then paid to state candidates out of another, according to RNC officials. It will have to be proved that this swap was illegal and that DeLay knew that the transaction violated Texas law.

But, as we say, this case is totally separate from the one that the ethics committee has had in its inbox for months as it attempts — so far unsuccessfully — to organize. We’d say that Republicans are primarily responsible for the committee’s slow-motion pace, but we’d also add that Democrats have played their part, too.

Republicans pushed through a rule providing that a preliminary investigation could not evolve into a full-scale probe without majority support on the evenly-dividing committee. Democrats then refused to take part in committee proceedings if the rule held. The GOP backed down. Then Democrats balked at the attempt by ethics chairman Doc Hastings (Wash.) to grant his top staffer authority over day-to-day committee operations. They won that fight, too.

Now, Hastings and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) are in the process of cooperatively hiring a chief counsel and new investigators. This is supposed to be completed by late October or early November. We say: You’ve dawdled long enough. DeLay, Congress and the public deserve a prompt, thorough investigation that is completed early enough in 2006 so that voters will be able to make an informed decision about DeLay’s travel when they go to the polls in November.