How one views the ethics controversy swirling around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, greatly depends on one’s visceral reaction to the man himself. He’s one of those polarizing figures people either love or hate. But emotions shouldn’t cloud our judgment about what this case is all about.
We have no particular affection for DeLay. In fact, we frequently find ourselves nostalgic for the days when the GOP had congressional leaders who, whatever else one thought of them, were figures of unassailable stature and integrity. But we nonetheless believe far too much is being made of claims that DeLay is getting a pass on the ethics front. And there are solid reasons to suspect that at least some of the allegations against him are the product of political vendettas.
House Republicans are being pilloried for changing a party rule (as opposed to a congressional rule) that members must relinquish leadership positions if under criminal indictment. Most of the criticism is coming from left-leaning pundits and editorial pages, evidently still smarting from the drubbing Democrats took on Election Day and the role DeLay played in their success.
But the rules change actually was much more nuanced and less alarming than advertised. It doesn’t mean DeLay or any other leaders couldn’t be removed by colleagues if the situation merits it. It simply allows extenuating circumstances to be taken into account before a leader is automatically forced to step aside. This stems from a concern on the part of DeLay’s colleagues, not unfounded in our view, that he’s become a target in a new flare-up of the so-called ethics wars, in which leaders of both parties have been toppled in the past.
The allegations against DeLay, a few of which resulted in bipartisan rebukes from the House Ethics Committee, were brought by a Texas Democrat, Rep. Chris Bell, who is bitter about being redistricted out of his seat. Bell himself received a rebuke from the Ethics Committee this week for using “innuendo, speculative assertions or conclusory statements” in his allegations against DeLay, in violation of House rules. Committee Chairman Joel Hefley and ranking member Alan Mollohan, a Democrat from West Virginia, said the facts in the DeLay case “did not come even close to supporting the extremely serious claims” leveled by Bell.
Neither party is beyond reproach on questions of ethics, so much of the indignation we’re seeing is selective and partisan. But recent history shows Republicans have been far more scrupulous about holding their colleagues and leaders accountable for misconduct than Democrats, who would have stood by Bill Clinton even if he’d been caught holding-up a 7-Eleven.
Of course, the ultimate responsibility for enforcing ethical standards rests with constituents and voters, who have been fairly good about culling members of Congress who clearly cross the line. And if some Americans, and some political parties, don’t mind being represented by sleazeballs, they’ll ultimately be the ones who suffer for it.