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April 22, 2005

Ethical Lapses: Perceived & Real
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas

U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, holds up a Cecil Brooks Original Flintlock Rifle presented to him after his keynote address at the National Rifle Association's 134th annual banquet April 16, 2005 in Houston. (AP/David J. Phillip)

Congress failed once again this week to come to grips with the ethics controversy swirling around one of the most powerful men in Washington, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. This story is likely to go on for a while, feeding into a more important debate: does it really matter which party controls Congress, if everyone plays by the same old Washington rules on ethics and on policy?

As to the ethical issues, this week DeLay again declared he was innocent of any misbehavior, and blamed his troubles on Democrats who hate effective conservative leaders. But Democrats are not the only ones who have criticized DeLay. Some Republicans are worried DeLay is hurting their party, and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL published an editorial about what we called the "odor" surrounding DeLay's rap sheet.

There are three basic allegations against DeLay, questions about ties to lobbyists, foreign trips funded by outside groups and use of campaign funds. Potentially the most serious allegation concerns a Texas political action committee founded by DeLay that is accused of illegally misusing corporate donations. Three of DeLay's associates have already been indicted.

The second allegation concerns overseas trips DeLay and his staff made, including one to the South Pacific, a trip to London with his wife and staff companions which cost $70,000 and a trip to Moscow which cost $57,000. Of the Moscow and London trips, DeLay's office says they were legitimately paid for by a Washington non-profit foundation. But there is evidence that the foundation actually received the money to pay for DeLay's trips through a Washington lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, a close friend of DeLay's.

And finally, there is the issue of DeLay's wife and daughter being paid more than a half million dollars from private contributions to DeLay's political campaign committees. While the practice is legal and rampant in Washington, it has the appearance of impropriety.

All of this might have gone away had Republicans not forced a rules change in the House Ethics Committee, which had admonished DeLay three times last year, effectively stalling any further probe of DeLay's activity.

Joining the panel to discuss this is John Fund, who has been following this story closely for

Paul Gigot
Paul Gigot
"The majority leader acknowledged to us that when you get an office like this, suddenly you're held to a different standard. It's called the perception standard. A lot of Republicans are saying they wish that DeLay figured that out some years ago, not just recently."
John Fund
John Fund
"A new standard certainly is required. A lot of Republicans elected in 1994 came to Washington, the swamp, and now find it makes a great hot tub. That says to the conservative base, 'You're not really trying to change the place we're so suspicious of.' When DeLay practices business as usual, it feeds into the perception that nothing has really changed in Washington."
Daniel Henninger
Daniel Henninger
"Ethics really is to Washington's politics what bunker buster bombs are to war. It's mainly a good way to blow up your enemy. It's a political weapon and both sides use it. I don't believe that these incidents really clean up the system."
Bret Stephens
Bret Stephens
"If you look at all of these charges, they're at best fine-print violations of the rules. I think they're all perception. None of these are serious ethical charges, but DeLay has really three other problems. One of them is the perception charge. A second problem is a political problem. The Democrats on the left never liked DeLay because he's a very effective majority leader. The third issue is power, what do Republicans do in Washington once they have power?"

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ARCHIVE: WSJ - Paul Gigot Commentary

ARCHIVE: WSJ - Daniel Henninger Commentary

ARCHIVE: WSJ - John Fund