Shielding Tom DeLay

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes: That's what we say to a congressman from the other end of Tennessee, 3rd District U.S. representative Zach Wamp (R-Chattanooga). Wamp was one of several Republican House members who broke with their party majority last week to resist a change in GOP caucus rules designed to protect the party position of Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

"It sends all the wrong signals for us to change the current rules," said Wamp, in the course of an unrecorded voice vote which went, however, the other way. The purpose of the vote was to strike a provision in party rules requiring that a member step down from a leadership position if indicted for a felony. That prospect now confronts DeLay, who has been repeatedly admonished by the House Ethics Committee for questionable use of corporate donations to finance partisan political activity and now faces possible indictment by a grand jury that has already returned a true bill against three of his political associates.

The specific rule that was changed dates from the early 1990s, at a time when the GOP was taking over control of the House and wished to make a statement, distancing itself from allegedly improper behavior on the part of the Democrats' House leadership. (Both Speaker Jim Wright, another Texan, and Democratic caucus chairman Tony Coelho of California had been driven from office by Republicans citing their alleged ethics violations.)

Wamp -- an independent-minded congressman who previously has voiced reservations about his party's policies on Iraq and tax cuts -- is right. Especially given the background of the rule, the GOP revocation of it is a wrong signal indeed -- one that elevates hypocrisy to a governing principle.

We regret that 7th District representative Marsha Blackburn, whose district includes our own circulation area, felt otherwise. Not only has Blackburn owned up to having voted for the rules change, she relayed a statement this week from Afghanistan, where she's visiting troops, to the effect that the Ethics Committee was too profligate in its earlier chastisements of DeLay. She has written a letter to House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier of California, seeking restrictions on the Ethics Committee's ability to issue admonishments in cases like the majority leader's. More properly, Blackburn went on to say that members should be penalized for convictions but not for indictments alone.

DeLay -- who is said to relish his nickname, "The Hammer" -- is best known of late as the force behind a special 2003 Texas reapportionment which in effect turned over five safe Democratic House seats to the GOP. He neither gave nor asked for quarter in that instance. We suspect that the resourceful gentleman from Texas can take care of himself, and, if there's anyone who can stand a bit of admonishment without needing to hide behind his colleagues, it is probably DeLay.

If Representative Blackburn has the time and energy to go on a crusade, we would much prefer that she fight the good fight on maintaining the validity of state sales-tax deductions from federal income-tax returns. This was a concession -- extremely useful to her Tennessee constituents -- that she and others worked hard to secure in congressional action earlier this year, but it is said to be high on the hit list in the tax "reform" package being prepared by the White House. •

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