The 109th Congress was sworn in yesterday, and in the House the first order of business was to pass a rule weakening ethics standards by, among other things, providing for dismissal of ethics charges if an ethics panel composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans deadlocks or takes no action within 45 days of the filing of a complaint. The rule change, which was approved in a straight party-line vote, is widely viewed as a move to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) whose “Texans for a Republican Majority” PAC is under investigation by a Texas prosecutor.

Outgoing House Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefley, a Republican from Colorado Springs, voted for the rule change even though he views it as a weakening of ethics standards and appears to have preferred the old rules. He said he felt he could support the change after proposed rules that were even “worse” (Hefley’s words) were withdrawn. So this looks like a compromise that protects Delay while backing away from a more wide ranging ethics “reform” proposal that had been roundly criticized by both liberal and conservative groups.

Hefley surprised many by going on record against the earlier ethics proposal. But while the House Ethics Committee did little under his leadership, Hefley comes from the safest of seats in Colorado Springs and unlike many GOP representatives, he has not needed to accept campaign assistance from DeLay. This put him in a good position to get the Republican caucus on board with the more moderate watering down of ethics rules that ultimately passed. Chalk one up to the law of unintended consequences, and don’t be surprised if Hefley’s successor on the ethics committe doesn’t have his same level of job security and independence.