Topic: Government & Politics

High Time to Nail the Hammer
(10/21/2004)

As has been documented more than once on The Ethics Scoreboard, the US Congress's House Ethics Committee is little more than a lifeless shell, stubbornly refusing to hold members accountable for blatant and unconscionable ethical misconduct. Its comatose state dates from a "cease fire" in the wake of Democrat-led ethics charges against former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich as political retribution for Gingrich's use of the ethics rules to topple Democratic Speaker Jim Wright. Unable to keep ethics enforcement from being used as a partisan weapon, both sides of the House aisle agreed, in essence, to let politicians be politicians, blithely ignoring ethics and making a mockery of the ethics rules.

So what does it say about Texas Republican Tom Delay, the Majority Whip, that this notoriously torpid and toothless committee has issued not one but three reprimands inspired by his conduct? Here's what it doesn't say: that the Committee's admonishments are "a concocted strategy of character assassination." That's what DeLay (a.k.a. "The Hammer") says, predictably, and unconvincingly.

DeLay was admonished for:

  • Creating the "appearance of impropriety under House standards of conduct" for holding an energy interest fundraiser while important energy legislation was pending before a congressional conference committee

  • "Using governmental resources for a political undertaking" when DeLay asked the Federal Aviation Administration to track the hiding Texas House Democrats who were trying to block the GOP redistricting plan in May of 2003.

  • Using offers of political favors and threats to pressure Michigan Republican Nick Smith for his vote during the Medicare prescription benefit bill push.

None of these offenses were trumped up; indeed, the evidence of DeLay's misconduct is more or less uncontested. And the committee deferred action on the most serious charge: that the Whip had used the "Texans for a Republican Majority PAC" to funnel corporate funds to Texas state campaigns in 2002 in violation of Texas law, as they wait for the outcome of the ongoing TRMPAC criminal investigation in Travis County. Meanwhile, a congressional (and potentially criminal) investigation of DeLay associates Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon continues, as there is considerable evidence that they traded on their connections with the majority leader to scam six Indian tribes (including the El Paso Tiguas) to the tune of $66 million.

Even though the notoriously chicken-hearted Committee on Standards of Official Conduct bent over backwards to avoid hitting DeLay with the kinds of sanctions that his conduct clearly warrants (a sample of its mealy-mouthed words: "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 pattern of DeLay's conduct should be obvious. He is a practitioner of the "win at all costs," "anything goes" school of politics, and genuinely believes that this is the way one gets things done in Washington: influence, bribes, threats, naked power and routine violations of principle and law. He isn't the only one, to be sure, but he is a good place to start if Americans are truly interested in good government and trustworthy representatives.

At some point, like now, Republicans need to ask themselves what it says about their party when a an ethically-challenged elected official like Tom DeLay holds such a prominent position in the party's power structure and is such a visible representative of the party itself. (Voters in DeLay's district should ask themselves a similar question.) Now, it is said, he is vowing retribution on members of the ethics committee. The Congressman who raised the energy influence complaint knew that he was retiring, and was thus immune from a DeLay ordered political hit; laughably, the Whip has proposed that "lame duck" Congressmen be barred from making ethics complaints.

Having Tom DeLay serve as a Congressional leader corrupts both the body's image and its ethical environment. One way or the other, either by the voters, his party, or through ethics sanctions, he needs to be sent packing. If he is not, it will serve as a reliable indicator of how seriously the House, the Republican Party, and the voters of Texas take principles of right and wrong.

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