Apply Ethics to Ethics Rules

Republicans in the US House of Representatives degraded their public office last week when they reversed one of their key ethics rules.

Faced with the possibility that a Texas grand jury might indict GOP House majority leader Tom DeLay for alleged campaign-finance abuses, the rank and file voted to drop a party rule that would have forced the Texan to relinquish his leadership post were he to be indicted on a felony charge.

The rule, which applied to all Republican House committee and party leaders, was in fact a poor one. Under the premise of innocent until proven guilty, the new rule - that leadership posts of indicted members be reviewed case by case - is more just.

The problem is with the genesis and demise of the rule itself, and the unfortunate signal this sends that ethics is merely a political tool, instead of a protecting bedrock.

In a show of moral superiority, House Republicans established the rule in 1993 when House Democrats were besmirched by high-profile scandals. Now that one of the Republicans' own could be threatened, they have suddenly deemed their rule obsolete.

Republican Reps. Ray LaHood of Illinois and Chris Shays of Connecticut, who both opposed last week's reversal, correctly said it sends a wrong message of favoritism. It also reflects poorly on House GOP colleagues, such as Henry Bonilla of Texas, who argued that the change protected their leaders from "partisan crackpot" district attorneys - a broadside against the prosecution system.

Now House Democrats say they're going to create a rule like the one their opponents just dropped. But that would be more ethics gamesmanship.

Surely these ploys are not what voters meant when they cited "moral values" as their most important issue.

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