THE HOUSE majority leader, Tom DeLay, who was cited by the House Ethics Committee for three violations this year and another in 1999, was rewarded yesterday by his fellow Republicans with a rules change that will allow him to keep his leadership position even if he is charged with a serious crime.
This shameful action, coming only 15 days after an election supposedly dominated by pledges of morality and reform, casts a cloud over the House and adds evidence -- if any were needed -- that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, sitting in a chair once occupied by Henry Clay, Sam Rayburn, and Tip O'Neill, provides no more leadership than a cardboard cutout.
DeLay said -- apparently with a straight face -- that the change was needed to protect Republicans from the Democrats' "politics of personal destruction."
Representative Henry Bonilla, who led the effort to benefit his fellow Texan, said, "This takes the power away from any partisan crackpot district attorney who may want to indict" party leaders.
Bonilla might take care about name-calling. It is true that a local Texas prosecutor has already indicted three DeLay associates on charges of illegal fund-raising for the 2002 legislative elections in Texas -- elections that gave Republicans the majority they needed to redistrict the congressional delegation, producing a swing of five more GOP congressmen from Texas.
However, one of the four admonishments of DeLay from the House's own bipartisan Ethics Committee concerned that same redistricting. And the US Supreme Court has intervened, telling lower courts to take a close look at the charges relating to that redistricting.
It should be noted that people are innocent until proven guilty, but many institutions require people to give up leadership roles if indicted.
It is also worth noting that Bonilla's own seat was made more secure by the redistricting.
It is tempting to suggest that President Bush should use some of his treasured political capital to try to straighten out his party's leadership in the House. But, while the noxious odor does affect all Republicans in Washington, the solution must come from the House membership.
Very few members of the Republican conference stood up to object yesterday, and Hastert, of course, did not insist on a vote. For now, DeLay's fund-raising prowess and his success in adding a margin of comfort to the GOP majority in the House on Nov. 2 have been valued more highly by his colleagues than the damage done by his one-man ethical infestation. But when an institution like the House loses public confidence, each member is damaged. Eventually they will have to fumigate.