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March 31, 2005

The Delay Dilemma

Brian W. Kelly

      Last January, almost every media outlet in the business reported the controversy over Ward Churchill, an ethics professor from the University of Colorado, and his essay Some People Push Back. The essay traced the recent history of US foreign policy, specifically with regard to much of the Middle East, and arrived at the conclusion that the US, specifically, “the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers,” got what they deserved when terrorists successfully destroyed both buildings. While the ethical controversy was fitting, given the moral repulsiveness of Churchill’s views, not to mention recent allegations of plagiarism, one does not need to travel all the way to Colorado to witness breaches of ethical conduct. In fact, one does not even need to single out a university ethics professor; one of the vilest acts of ethical repugnancy is occurring within the US Congress. The egregious behavior of House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX) over the past few years is again coming home to roost as Delay faces accusations, yet again, of breaking House ethics rules.

The Delay Dilemma

      The US House of Representatives, in accordance with the authority vested by the Constitution, reserves the right to set its own rules for conduct. The ethics committee of the House, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has documented several instances of improper conduct by Representative Delay since 1997. The records include one instance in 1997, two instances in 1999, and, according to the sixty-two-page report completed by the Committee on 30 September last year, Delay was cited in three more instances. Allegations of Delay’s involvement in fund-raising violations have long haunted him in Congress but have remained relatively unknown to the outside world. One of his most recent violations of the House’s ethical standards involved strong-arming Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) into an affirmative vote for last year’s Medicare prescription drug bill in exchange for a political favor.

      Perhaps what is most disturbing about all of this is not that Delay, the House Majority Leader, is breaking the rules of the Congress, but that Republicans are actually trying to alter the rules as they are currently written. Last January, the Associated Press reported that the resolution passed by the House, “provides that the ethics committee will take no action on a complaint against a member unless the chairman and ranking minority member, or a majority of the committee, find within 45 days that an investigation is merited.” Such an action was stunning; “previously a complaint automatically went to an investigative committee if no action was taken within 45 days.” To be fair, the measure allows either party in power to essentially become the policeman of its own ethics; however, the Republicans currently hold the reigns of power and, thus, benefit from the changes now. Measures such as that of last January seem counterintuitive to the entire mission of the ethics committee. Now the standard is similar to what Major League Baseball uses with regard to its own drug policy—a joke or token gesture to appease critics. Of course, all of this is a moot point when members can be removed at the whim of Representatives like Delay, as was proven when he removed two independent-thinking Republicans from the Committee and replaced them with more loyal members. Is this Democracy in action?

      Delay’s infractions have not gone unnoticed by Congressional Democrats. In fact, members of the Senate such as John Kerry have voiced their dismay at the Majority Leader’s actions. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House Minority Leader, submitted House Resolution 153 in an effort to curb the current deterioration of ethical practice. The resolution stated, “The speaker shall appoint a bi-partisan task force with equal representation of the majority and minority parties to make recommendations to restore public confidence in the ethics process.” Not surprisingly in a Republican-dominated House, the resolution was defeated 223-194 when taken to vote. It was a surprise, though, that representatives like Joel Hefley (R-CO) broke with party ranks to support the measure.

      Tom Delay’s conduct as a member of Congress has been embarrassing, at best, and criminal, at worst. His current foray into the shady side of politics involves an investigation into a 2001 trip that he, his wife, and congressional staffers made to South Korea with all expenses paid by a foreign agent—specifically a lobbyist firm. This is an arrangement strictly forbidden by the rules delineated by the ethics committee concerning gifts and privately sponsored travel. All of this leaves Congressional Republicans in a dilemma. Do they stand by their leader even in the face of compromising their own morals or do they break with the party as Rep. Hefley did, risking alienation? The Republican Party continuously talks about moral values, family values, and ethical values; perhaps the best place for them to start is at home, or better yet, in the House.

Front Page (March 31, 2005)

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