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Hastert's Heavy Hand

This column from The Nation was written by Ari Berman.
Welcome back to "Hammer Time," our chronicle of the ethical travails of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the newfound importance of the House Ethics Committee.

Over the past year, the Committee broke its self-imposed seven year slumber, issuing DeLay three unprecedented rebukes. Last week, dispiriting rumors became reality when the House Republican Leadership ousted independent-minded chairman Joel Hefley (R-CO) and two other Republican members of the committee, Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) and Steven LaTourette (R-OH), in seeming retaliation.

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert replaced Hefley with long-time confidante Doc Hastings (R-WA), and added Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Tom Cole (R-OK), both of whom gave thousands of dollars to DeLay's legal defense fund. Hulshof was tossed because he chaired the subcommittee that investigated DeLay's campaign finance violations, while LaTourette balked when the House tried to further sabotage the ethics process last January. Such integrity was too much for Hastert and DeLay. Hastert even announced the "purge" on Wednesday night, hoping that Bush's State of the Union Address would overshadow this latest outrage.

Because "The Hammer" may soon be indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating whether he illegally funneled money to local state representatives, House leadership aides told the Washington Post they need an ethics committee "they can trust." AKA, one that favors party loyalty over the law.

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New committee chairman Hastings was the congressman who acted to prolong the 2003 Medicare vote by an alarming three hours while the House Leadership twisted enough arms for its passage. Ironically, DeLay was admonished for trying to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) into supporting the legislation. For their part, Lamar Smith and Tom Cole contributed $10,000 and $5,000 respectively, to DeLay's $1 million defense fund, of which $352,000 came from fellow House Republicans.

"I believe the decision was a direct result of our work in the last session," Hulshof told reporters. Hastert claims he was only following term limits. But other Republicans have served longer than Hulshof, who specifically asked to stay. "[There's] a bad perception out there that there was a purge in the committee and that people were put in that would protect our side of the aisle better," Hefley added.

"It wasn't really removing him," Hastert spokesmen John Feehery absurdly countered. "It was more like relieving him of his duty. The speaker doesn't like to have people who are such talented legislators like him have to spend so much time on ethics." Hastert prefers the most ethically-challenged members assume that role.

By Ari Berman
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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