The House Republican leadership has done Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., no favors. Speaker Dennis Hastert last week made Hastings the new chairman of the House ethics committee, the panel charged with investigating members who may have violated House rules. And Hastert went by the book. The former chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., had served the prescribed two terms and Hastings was next in line in seniority.
But the change has raised a stink. It was widely seen as a reprisal against Hefley because during his tenure the committee had admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for his political shenanigans, and Hastert is desperate to protect DeLay. Certainly Hefley believes that is the case.
Reinforcing that impression was Hastert's addition to the panel of GOP Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, close allies of DeLay and generous donors to his legal defense fund.
It's possible, although perhaps not likely, that DeLay could face indictment in a Texas political controversy. Last month, until a public outcry forced them to back down, members of the House Republican Caucus tried to abolish a rule requiring members who have been indicted to step down from leadership posts. The caucus did make it harder for the ethics committee to open an investigation about a member.
Hastings is described as a Hastert favorite and indeed was in the presiding chair the night a floor vote was kept open for three hours while the leadership twisted enough arms to pass the prescription drug bill.
And the Washington Post reported that House leadership aides said outright they needed to have the ethics committee controlled by lawmakers they trust.
On every case that comes before the ethics committee — at least those the public hears about — Hastings will be in the unenviable position of having to prove a negative: that he is not a leadership stooge.