JULIAN DIXON explains quietly to reporters in measured tones what the House ethics committee he chairs has concluded thus far in its investigation of then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Representative Dixon, like other committee members, emphasizes the bipartisan nature of the committee's conclusions. It is a characteristic appearance by the California Democrat. He is perfectly capable of operating in a spotlight, but unlike some political figures, he seems to take no delight in doing so.
``What you see is what you get,'' veteran Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein says of the man who has taken the lead role in the ethics investigation of Mr. Wright by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as his committee is technically called. Representative Dixon has ``basically a quiet and a very effective style,'' adds Mr. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``This is an extremely bright, deep man - a thoughtful man, a tough man.''
For the past four years Dixon has chaired the 12-member House ethics committee, the quintessential no-win position in Washington. The committee and especially its chairman face the accusations of either being too easy with House members accused of wrongdoing or too hard with them. And sometimes both at once, as in the Wright case.
For the moment Dixon and his 11 colleagues are receding slightly from public view, with the resignation of Wright from the speakership.
But other investigations and renewed spotlights may be in store. They are likely to begin with charges of a questionable book-publishing arrangement against Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the new House Republican whip who started the accusations against Wright. Mr. Gingrich says he has done nothing wrong, but some Democrats seek an ethics committee probe anyway.
How many probes may be in the offing thereafter depends on whether House Republicans and Democrats decide to call a truce in the ethics war, or to fire volley after partisan volley.
For its part, the ethics committee is supposed to be strictly nonpartisan. It is the only House committee evenly divided between the parties, with six members from each.
If the first test is to be nonpartisan in its action, which most House members think the current committee has passed, the second is to avoid self-righteousness. People who are forced into a position of being ethically judgmental, as the committee was in the Wright case, often find there is a tendency to become self-righteous, says Michael Josephson, of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics. Succumbing to that tendency takes away from the effectiveness of their conclusions, he adds.
Under Dixon's leadership the committee did ``an extraordinary job of steering away from seeming to be self-righteous and instead being judicious,'' Mr. Josephson says. Since a chairman is primarily responsible for establishing the atmosphere within a committee, ``I think Dixon's got to get some of the credit for this,'' he adds.
In Congress Dixon generally gets credit for something equally important. ``People see him as honest, as an honest broker,'' Ornstein says.
Dixon is one of several ethics committee members who also serves on the House Appropriations Committee. ``That's not just coincidence,'' Ornstein says. In both committees ``the premium is not on headlines but on doing work'' inside the committee, away from the media, he says. ``That may make them faceless to the Washington community'' outside Congress, as Ornstein puts it. But they are known and respected within it.