Although much of the substance of charges against Speaker Jim Wright was leaked long before the House ethics committee made its formal report this week, the number of rule violations laid at Wright's door - 69 in all - was a distinct surprise.
In the light of that large number, Wright's effectiveness as speaker and leader of House Democrats has been seriously jeopardized. Under the circumstances, it's difficult to see how he can continue in his role as speaker.Particularly compelling was the non-partisan nature of the report. The six Democrats and six Republicans on the committee voted unanimously that they had "reason to believe" 69 specific ethics violations had occurred.
Those violations include various instances of accepting inappropriate gifts and failing to report them and using sales of a book to evade limits on outside earnings.
In addition, the investigation was very thorough. It lasted 10 months, involved 73 witnesses and produced 7,000 pages of transcripts. It was not a hasty, politically oriented effort. However, it may become more political as the issue moves from ethics charges themselves to what to do about them.
Of course, as Wright's lawyer was quick to point out, there is a clear difference between "reason to believe" and "clear and convincing evidence" of improper conduct. It's the important difference between being accused and being found guilty that must be kept in mind at all times.
Yet Wright's reputation may be irrevocably damaged, no matter how it all turns out. The speaker must be above suspicion and as the ethics panel's own guidelines state, House members should "abide by the spirit as well as the letter of House rules." This is especially true of the speaker, who is next in line for the U.S. presidency after the vice president.
Even if all the charges were dismissed, there would always be a belief among some that exoneration of the powerful speaker amounted to a partisan whitewash.
Much will depend on how Wright handles his defense and how his supporters approach the issue. If it is fought on partisan terms, the question of Wright's ethics could become obscured. Unfortunately, the speaker already has made some appeals along party lines. That approach should be avoided by the House at all costs.
Wright has 21 days to answer the charges against him but has indicated his response will come faster than that, perhaps within a week. Certainly, any delay only leaves Wright under a cloud that much longer.
The speaker will meet with the ethics committee and deal with each of the accusations of rule violations.
After Wright's defense, the committee must decide if the charges stick and if a disciplinary hearing should be held and what punishment, if any, should be recommended. Given the fact that this same committee has produced the 69 charges against Wright, it may be difficult for him to come away totally unscathed.
The committee could recommend expulsion from the House, a reprimand, censure, removal as speaker, or any other punishment the committee thinks is appropriate. At that point, the issue goes to the whole House where partisan politics may come into play with a vengeance.
It's unlikely the committee will recommend that Wright be kicked out of the House or even that he resign his powerful post as speaker, so the House will not have to deal with those questions directly.
But if he is found guilty of ethics violations, it's hard to see how he could effectively continue as House speaker. His image and reputation would be too tarnished for such a visible and powerful role. And it would certainly send the wrong message to the country.
Wright already has reached the point where the best thing he can do for the country, the Congress and his party is to step down as speaker.