PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to the Journal Editorial Report. 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've 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.
TOM DE LAY: Bring it on.
PAUL GIGOT: DeLay has consistently and aggressively denied or refuted every allegation.
TOM DE LAY: I've answered all the questions.
PAUL GIGOT: And he has not been charged with violating any law.
PAUL GIGOT: 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.
PAUL GIGOT: The second allegation concerns overseas trips DeLay and his staff made, including this one to the South Pacific, a trip to London with his wife and staff companions which cost 70 thousand dollars, and a trip to Moscow which cost 57 thousand dollars. 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.
TOM DE LAY: The point is, if the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the Conservative movement. And that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges, and then get the national media on their side.
PAUL GIGOT: With me to discuss all this are: Dan Henninger, columnist and deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial board; Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial board; and John Fund, who's been following this story closely for OpinionJournal.com. Bret, we just met with the majority leader, who paid us a visit at our offices. Why don't you help sort through these ethics charges, and what's real and what's political or perception.
BRET STEPHENS: Well, I think they're all perception. If you look at all of these charges, they're at best fine-print violations of the rules. None of these are serious ethical charges. But DeLay has really three other problems. One of them is the perception charge. He's been associated with Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former staff member of his, and these people are in deep trouble for questionable lobbying work they did for Indian casinos.
A second problem is a political problem. The Democrats on the left never liked DeLay because he's a very effective majority leader, he's able to put bills through Congress. That's why he's called the Hammer. But now people on the right don't like him either, because they don't like the substance of some of those bills, the most notorious example of which was the hugely expensive Medicare Drug Prescription Bill.
And the third issue is power, which is to say, what do Republicans do in Washington once they have power? Do they remain the party of revolutionaries that they were in 1994, or have they simply become just another incumbency party?
PAUL GIGOT: John, 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 the wish that he'd have figured that out some years ago, not just recently.
JOHN FUND: Yes, a new standard certainly is required. And also, Paul, what Bret says is right. A lot of Republicans elected in 1994 came to Washington during the swamp, and now they find it makes a great hot tub. What that says to the Conservative base is, you're not really trying to change the place we're so suspicious of. And all of the big spending that we've seen in the last few years has fueled that suspicion.
That means that when DeLay goes on and practices business as usual, it feeds into the perception that nothing has really changed in Washington.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, if there's nothing to all these ethics charges -- I mean truly substantively -- then why go through the trouble of changing the Ethics Committee chairmanship -- they've got a new chairman -- and changing the rules so that, for example, you can dismiss a charge after 45 days on a merely partisan vote. Didn't that create an opening for Democrats to attack?
JOHN FUND: Absolutely. But, the ethics process was misused last year. The Ethics Committee found that a Texas Democrat, now-departed Chris Bell, has broken the standards of the House in trying to trump up ridiculous charges. Some of the charges need to be investigated. But Paul, this week the Republicans offered the Democrats an investigation of DeLay for the first time, with no limits. But the Democrats -- it's almost like you're taking a Christmas present saying, "I'm not going to open it because I don't like the way it's wrapped." They're saying they don't want an investigation. That leads people to think the Democrats want to perpetuate, this is a political issue, they're interested in the resolution.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, Tom DeLay admitted that the Democrats had won the Public Relations war on this. So why shouldn't the Democrats ride this out and take advantage of it, Dan? It's politics.
DAN HENNINGER: Well, it's partly politics. It's a couple of things. I think what's going on here is that an issue like this operates in several alternative universes. The public sits back and they think, "These guys should be more ethical. Washington should be cleaner." At the level of Washington politics, 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. It's a political weapon, and both sides use it. And somehow you can say, "Well, politics is politics. Somehow at the end of the day we go through incidents like this and it cleans up the system." Well, I don't believe that. It doesn't clean up the system.
PAUL GIGOT: On the policy front, Tom DeLay was at pains when he talked to us to say, look, we recognize that we've made mistakes and we know we have a disagreement, for example, with large numbers of Republicans on the expense of the Medicare bill last year. And he said, look, we're going to move ahead on budget reform, and we're going to control the appropriations committees on spending. We're going to move ahead with Social Security. He laid out this very aggressive agenda, including control the spending, which has been a real problem with the Republicans, John. Were you impressed with that agenda?
JOHN FUND: Well, some of it was news to me, which makes me think that Tom DeLay has gotten the message, that the Republican base is a little concerned that things haven't worked out the way that people expected. He also made news on judges, for example. He said judicial activism has run rampant and maybe we should have hearings on what constitutes good behavior for judges. Maybe there is a way, while retaining independent judiciary, to ask questions about whether judges have gone beyond their normal power bounds.
DAN HENNINGER: But back in my political cynicism universe, if that's true, then the Democrats have an incentive to cut him down, right?
PAUL GIGOT: Right, because he's been effective. And going back to what Tom DeLay has done in the past, I would argue from my Washington base that Bill Clinton would never have been impeached without Tom DeLay. He drove that in the House.
DAN HENNINGER: This is pay-back, in part.
PAUL GIGOT: And this is in part pay-back. Because he is somebody who, frankly, he doesn't care what the Washington Post and The New York Times or CBS News say about him. He simply doesn't care. And that kind of inoculation means that he is sometimes much more effective.
BRET STEPHENS: Yeah, he does care, however, what the Wall Street Journal says about him. I mean, look, it was very nice to hear DeLay on many of these issues. And my reaction listening to him is, well, where have you been these past four years? I mean, it's true, on certain things he's been extremely effective. But discretionary spending on his watch has just gone out the window.
JOHN FUND: But just remember, the White House bears some of that blame, too. And the White House has never vetoed anything Congress has passed, the longest stretch of any president in history.
BRET STEPHENS: But that still doesn't exonerate DeLay. His job isn't simply to carry water for the White House. His job is to carry water for the Conservative movement, of which he's supposed to be the great...
PAUL GIGOT: But when you have a Republican in the White House, a member of the same party, you really do have to let the White House set the agenda.
JOHN FUND: Well here's the problem. The Medicare Bill that we're all complaining about was driven by the White House. DeLay was a collaborator in it, and he was the one who twisted the arms. But ultimately the blame is the White House.
PAUL GIGOT: Tom DeLay said that on the ethics front, "I've never felt stronger than I do right now, and the members have never been more supportive." That is, the members of his party in the House. He doesn't sound like a man who's saying that this ethics stuff is going to drive him from office.
JOHN FUND: Tom DeLay doesn't give up easily. I predict he will remain majority leader for the rest of this session. But the support -- which I think is true -- can change if something dramatic happens, if there's a shift in the Texas investigation, if there's a shift on the Ethics Committee probe. But I think he's staying. He's not budging. And the Democrats are happy with that, too, because they want him as a political whipping boy.
BRET STEPHENS: Although I think one thing that is becoming clearer is that Tom DeLay will never be Speaker of the House. I think this dream has died in the last few months.
PAUL GIGOT: That would mean a promotion one step up. Because as majority leader he just represents the Republicans. He also only won his district in 2004 with 53 percent of the vote, a district that George Bush carried with 65 percent of the vote. So he could have a tough re-election.
JOHN FUND?: He'll be busy.
PAUL GIGOT: That's right. Do you think, Dan, that Tom DeLay will be majority leader in two years?
DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, I absolutely think that he's a very effective leader of his own party. I think his biggest problem is that what he doesn't really -- none of them down there realize -- Washington has become a nouveau riche, nouveau arriviste boom town. It is swimming in money from lobbyists and liberal Hollywood campaign contributors. And he goes to London and stays at the Four Seasons Hotel instead of a Holiday Inn. Washington is not Main Street, but Main Street recognizes that Washington has become what Tom DeLay represents.
JOHN FUND: Paul, you mentioned term limits in many of your columns. Tom DeLay has simply been effective, but he's also become a careerist, and that's part of the problem.
PAUL GIGOT: All right, John, last word. Next subject.