House Republicans are scrambling to rub some of the tarnish off their dingy ethics image. They're desperately proposing reforms that would prevent members from taking pricey golf junkets paid for by special interests -- that is, they want to ban trips they never should have accepted. They're even holding a Feb. 2 in-House election to replace the indicted Texan Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader.
Give it up. A new face on the organizational chart picked from Team DeLay won't save the sorry image of House Repubs. Ditto ethics rules that any half-competent politician can subvert faster than you can say "election lawyer." If Republicans want to convince voters that they've reformed, here's a suggestion: Pick Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., to replace DeLay.
It would be glorious payback. When Hefley was chairman of the House ethics committee, he stood up to DeLay. In 2004, his committee unanimously admonished DeLay three times -- for offering to trade a candidate endorsement for a vote in favor of the Medicare drug plan, for cozying up to energy lobbyists in a way that "at a minimum, created the appearance that donors were being provided with special access" and for asking a federal agency to track a plane carrying members of the Texas Legislature during a political squabble. GOP biggies were miffed -- not at DeLay, as they should have been, but at Hefley.
In retaliation, the GOP leadership announced it would change committee rules to make it harder to investigate complaints, and thus shielded DeLay. Hefley complained that the changes threatened "the integrity of the House." The GOP leadership kindly dumped Hefley and found a new man to chair the committee.
What better man to replace DeLay then the man who lost a committee for standing up to "The Hammer"?
As the Almanac of American Politics noted, Hefley said of DeLay: "He lets me know repeatedly I'm not part of his team, and that's fine. I don't want to be part of his team."
Here's another welcome departure from the frenzied logrolling that has been endemic under House Speaker Dennis Hastert: "He often offers amendments to cut appropriations by 1 percent and in September 2004 stripped dozens of transportation projects off an appropriation because they had not been authorized," wrote the Almanac. Hefley had explained, "It's just an exercise to illustrate that you ought to do it by the proper procedure."
Hefley's Web site targets "the Porker of the Week" -- and if Hefley doesn't find a porker every week, at least he is willing to target the worst projects pushed by the most profligate Republicans. In November, for example, Hefley took after the infamous $320 million earmark for Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere."
And this is downright quaint: Hefley raised a measly $100,000 for his last re-election campaign, and won handily.
Under Hastert and DeLay, the GOP leadership has betrayed Republican principles. Deficit spending has been the leadership's crutch, and fund raising its addiction. It's clear DeLay and his cronies would still be living large and skirting rules if uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff had not pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribal clients, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes. If the GOP is calling for reforms, it's not because the party saw the light. It's because the leaders got caught.
That's not why voters elect Republicans. The GOP is built on people who want less government, not record spending. They want their lawmakers to be pro-business, but also expect their representatives to feel more allegiance to their constituents than sleazy lobbyists flashing first-class plane tickets.
Hefley spokesperson Kim Sears told me the congressman has received "some encouragement" to pursue the plum House majority leader position, but he is "not actively seeking it." As Hefley told Sears, to win leadership posts, a member has to devote years to working up the ladder -- it doesn't seem likely that a lawmaker who put his district first could become leader.
Changing the ethics rules won't help the Republicans if they continue to choose leaders because they are the biggest fund-raisers and the best backslappers. If Republicans want to get back to their philosophical roots, they should find a leader who remembers why he went to Washington. They should choose a leader who still believes in "the integrity of the House."