HOW HEARTENING to think Americans still expect members of Congress to maintain a minimum standard of ethical behavior - that voters may not have become so jaded by the misdeeds of the occasional few that they assume politicians feathering their own nests is just the natural way of things.

Responding to watchdog group complaints and anticipating much worse to come, House Republican leaders yanked themselves back from the abyss this week, retreating from a drive to eviscerate House ethics rules that was intended to accommodate the political and fund-raising machinations of embattled Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The very public reversal of Mr. DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert delighted and relieved the restive Republican rank-and-file, which was being dragged into the very sort of muck that sullied Democrats just before they lost their majority a decade ago. That shouldn't be the end of it.

If the Republicans want to shore up the public trust at the beginning of what promises to be an ambitious and tumultuous congressional term, they should not only restore but strengthen ethical standards that even now allow fast-and-loose operators such as Mr. DeLay to get away with only mild rebukes.

As a signal of their good intentions, Republicans ought to extend the tenure of Colorado Rep. Joel Hefley, the conservative yet independent Republican who led the bipartisan panel in three admonishments of Mr. DeLay over the past year. His removal by Mr. Hastert at this delicate point looks for all the world like retribution - and a warning to his potential successors.

It is a measure of how low expectations have become that Republicans are being congratulated for two moves that should have been obvious: restoring a prohibition on indicted lawmakers serving in the leadership, and backing off a plan to do away with ethical rebukes resulting from unseemly behavior that does not involve illegal acts or rule violations.

The prohibition on leadership service had been dropped under much pressure last fall because Mr. DeLay faces possible indictment in a Texas political corruption probe that has ensnared several of his allies. The three rebukes leveled against him for a pattern of behavior that raised "the appearance" of a conflict of interest all rested on the language threatened with removal.

Less-inflammatory changes were adopted yesterday, though, that may also weaken the ethics process - making it more difficult to bring or investigate complaints.

So it's far too soon to celebrate that the integrity of the House has been protected. Vigilant constituents should keep the heat up.

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