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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Arm twisted, wrist slapped

THE House ethics committee ruled that an attempt was made to coerce Michigan Congressman Nick Smith into changing his vote on the Medicare prescription drug benefit last November, but meekly administered only a tap on the wrist to the responsible GOP leaders.

The ethics panel, which investigated the incident for six months, meted out an "official admonishment" to Rep. Tom DeLay, the authoritarian House Majority Leader, and Rep. Candice Miller, the Republican congresswoman who formerly served as Michigan's secretary of state, for violating a House rule that deems it improper for a member "to offer or link support for the personal interests of another member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal."

In other words, a bribe.

Given the blatant nature of the coercion, it is disappointing that the committee didn't do more than issue the weakest possible penalty for an ethics violation.

Oddly, the panel also faulted Mr. Smith, a Republican from Addison who represents Michigan's Seventh Congressional District, for exaggerating the size of the bribe. Talk about blaming the victim.

Mr. Smith told the media last fall that his fellow Republicans leaned on him to change his no vote on the Medicare bill to yes, warning that if he did not $100,000 in campaign funds would be made available to a primary election opponent of Mr. Smith's son, Brad, who wanted to succeed his father. Later, he partially recanted, saying no specific dollar amount was mentioned.

In the end, Mr. Smith refused to change his position, but the bill passed by five votes. His son was defeated in a six-candidate primary.

According to the ethics panel, Mr. DeLay told Mr. Smith, "I will personally endorse your son. That's my last offer." Ms. Miller, who was helping to round up additional support for the GOP legislative priority, admitted only to saying, "Well, I hope your son doesn't come to Congress, or I'm not going to support your son, or something to that effect."

The words may have been vague, but the message to Mr. Smith was unmistakable.

Trading favors on Capitol Hill is a common occurrence, to be sure, but that does not make the incident any less unseemly. Seldom is word of such coercion made public but Mr. Smith was so irked that he put his objection on the record.

For Mr. DeLay, the reprimand is only one more notch on his political gun stock. In 1999, for example, the Texan was privately admonished by the ethics committee for threatening a Washington trade association with retaliation for hiring a Democrat instead of a Republican to head the organization. Just last month, a grand jury indicted three of his close associates in connection with improprieties involving congressional redistricting in Texas.

With Republicans controlling virtually all of official Washington, Mr. DeLay fancies himself a political kingmaker and isn't bashful about letting people know how powerful he is.

In the rough and tumble world of Capitol Hill politics, however, the distance from victor to vanquished can be surprisingly short; just ask former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Tom DeLay could be headed for a similar, well-deserved fall.



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