The House's Fear of Tom DeLayBy Editorial Board, New York Times
Monday, September 20, 2004
The House ethics committee, ever the Capitol's hibernating watchdog, has been dithering for months about allegations that the majority leader, Tom DeLay, abused his office when he engineered the gerrymander of Texas House seats to cushion his Republican edge in Congress. The committee should have at least approved a formal inquiry by now, but the latest reports indicate that the issue will soon be deep-sixed as the Republican Congress shows no appetite for investigating Mr. DeLay, one of Washington's most feared and bare-knuckled partisans.
Committee leaders claim to be still fact-gathering, but it has becoming clear that their mission is to dismiss this hot potato yet not seem cowardly about it. One gambit is called the "option of last resort" under ethics rules: punting the issue to the evenly divided panel. Unless there's a profile in courage in the wings, this would mean a 5-to-5 deadlock on party lines and no inquiry. The "option of last resort" is really a political magic wand to make the duties of office vaporize.
The far better option is to appoint an outside counsel to look into the charges, as was done in earlier ethics investigations of Speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich. Mr. DeLay's role in the redistricting power play, right down to his personal visit to lobby the Austin statehouse, is a matter of record. What is in dispute are the charges from one of the Democratic losers in the gerrymander, Representative Chris Bell, that Mr. DeLay improperly offered favors for campaign donations, laundered funds to bolster his party clout in Texas and sicced federal agencies on runaway Democratic lawmakers who boycotted the state redistricting vote.
Mr. DeLay insists that there is no substance to the charges and that Mr. Bell, a primary-fight loser under the skewed Texas remap, has filed 187 pages of sour grapes. Mr. DeLay has called on the committee to clear his name by dismissing the charges. A "last resort" deadlock would not be a clean bill of health, but a typically cynical evasion by politicians feeling the heat. The ethics committee might try the true last resort and begin taking itself seriously.