Gloves Off

There have been plenty of stories written in recent weeks about how the Bush administration has ignored rules of good governance in order to further its partisan agenda. But Republicans on Capitol Hill have been just as brazen, and Democrats are finally ready to strike back.

Last fall, GOP leaders held the Medicare reform vote open for almost three hours as they struggled to find enough support to eke out a victory. Michigan Representative Nick Smith was targeted by his party's members, who told him they would help his son's congressional campaign only if he supported the measure. Smith, who later backtracked on his comments, ended up opposing the bill anyway.

Democrats, infuriated by the incident, had hoped that the bipartisan Ethics Committee -- headed by Republican Representative Joel Hefley but composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans -- would investigate the matter on its own. No such luck. Republicans aren't about to do the Democrats' work for them, especially in an election year.

More recently, Democrats grew concerned that GOP Representative Billy Tauzin may have been talking to officials at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America about taking the top job there. At the same time, he was pushing the Medicare bill, which is a key concern of the group, through the House. (Don't forget, too, that Democrats were essentially shut out of conference-committee negotiations on the measure.) As Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois told Roll Call, "It would be accurate to say many of us feel we've just had it."

Now, as the newspaper reports, Democrats are planning to file a formal ethics complaint on the Smith matter. By doing so, they would be breaking a seven-year agreement

between the parties not to launch charges against each other. And, to be sure, they would be opening themselves up to criticism from Republicans, who would surely fire back by filing charges on other matters. But Democrats would be taking a necessary step in showing the GOP that they are ready to fight back and engage in the hardball tactics that Republicans employ all too eagerly.

Such tactics helped propel the GOP to its majority in the first place. Just think of then-Representative Newt Gingrich attacking then-Speaker Jim Wright in the late 1980s for the Democrat's book deal, only to be followed several years later by Democrats attacking Gingrich for his book deal, which led to the ethics détente. And off Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay engineered a newly redrawn map for Texas districts that will give the GOP an edge in Congress for the next decade. Playing dirty may not be pretty, but, unfortunately, that's how the game works these days.

As one top Democratic aide told Roll Call, "We are laying the groundwork to show that Democrats were left with no other option than to force these things to happen, especially given how outrageous their management of the House is and how ethically challenged this group is."

It's too bad that Democrats are in a spot where they feel they have no other options. That's partly due to the party's minority status in a chamber that's majority-run. But it's also because Democrats have been cowed by Republicans in recent years. Last year, Democrats thought about filing an ethics complaint against Ohio Representative Mike Oxley for suggesting that a mutual-fund group employ a Republican, rather than a Democrat, as its chief lobbyist. But they didn't.

Hopefully Democrats now realize that if they sit idly by, they're going to have a tougher time breaking the GOP's stranglehold on Washington. It was just a few years ago that DeLay suggested that the Electronic Industries Alliance would feel the heat if the group hired Democratic Representative Dave McCurdy -- and was barely reprimanded. Such practices are likely to stop only if Democrats hold Republicans accountable for their actions and make clear that they won't tolerate being ignored.

The anti-Bush message of most presidential candidates is motivating voters -- who realize they've been shortchanged by the administration's partisan agenda -- to go to the polls. If House Democrats can show voters how Republicans on the Hill are similarly bending the rules, they could also see positive results on election day.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.