AUSTIN, Texas -- Oh boy! Starting the year off briskly, lending it such tone already, such cachet, such je ne sais quoi -- those Republicans are so special, aren't they? Their first move, first rat out of the trap, top priority: lower ethics standards. Yessiree, this 2005 is going to be quite a year, some pip.

Let's put that to a vote. Many problems before us -- Iraq, a Social Security "crisis," a real health care crisis, world terrorism, our international reputation possibly at its lowest ever ... who is in favor of lowering ethics standards first? Who thinks ethics standards in Washington are too high?

House "Republican leaders" -- that would be your Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert and other moral heroes of our time -- want to repeal the rule that makes it possible for the House to censure members for bringing "discredit" on the House, even if their behavior does not fall under a specific rule.

They also want to relax a restriction on relatives of lawmakers accepting foreign and domestic trips from groups interested in House legislation. How very ... Bourbon of them. Wives and kiddies are already comped to go along on junkets. With the new rule, parents, cousins and grandparents could go, too. Good grief, how can the Republicans maintain family values without them?

Then there's the rules change that will make it possible for either party to stop the House ethics committee. As it is now, if the ethics committee, five Republicans and five Democrats, deadlocks, the complaint automatically goes to an investigative subcommittee after 45 days. Nope, they want to change that to a majority of the committee. More "Protect Tom DeLay" changes. Does it not occur to the Republicans that Tom DeLay brings "discredit" on the House every day he is in office?

At least Richard Nixon once paused to say, "But it would be wrong ..." Does no one in this administration ever stop to ponder: "Perhaps we should not do this. Perhaps this is not a good idea"?

For example, making long-range plans for indefinitely imprisoning suspected terrorists whom they do not want to set free or turn over to the courts in either the United States or other countries. They are talking about "potentially lifetime detentions." According to Dana Priest of The Washington Post, a "senior administration official" said: "We've been operating in the moment because it's what's been required. ... Now we can take a breath. We have the ability and need to look at long-term solutions."

Nice to think of the Bushies "in the now," like a bunch of New Age nature lovers. But their idea of a "long-term solution" is building a 200-bed prison at Gitmo "to hold detainees who are unlikely ever to go through a military tribunal for lack of evidence." Uh, how about letting them go for lack of evidence?

That noted commie Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., said: "It's a bad idea. So we ought to get over it, and we ought to have a very careful, constitutional look at this." Another com-symp, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, "There must be some modicum, some semblance of due process ... if you're going to detain people, whether it's for life or whether it's for years." Where do these people get such radical, far-out notions?

According to Reuters, "The new prison, dubbed Camp 6, would allow inmates more freedom and comfort than they have now and would be designed for prisoners the government believes have no more intelligence to share."

Let's see, there's no evidence against these people, they have no more intelligence to share ... exactly where do we get the authority to hold them for life, and why are we doing so?

Just to show you that such forms of accountability as are left in our slightly tattered system of checks and balances are worth keeping, the upcoming hearing on Al Gonzales for attorney general has already borne fruit. Voila! The Justice Department has come out with a new memo on torture saying it is not necessarily limited to "excruciating and agonizing pain." Say, what a triumph for human rights.

Further, the memo says, "Torture is abhorrent to both American law and values, and to international norms." So there. In other words, we have repealed the infamous Gonzales memo, just in time for his hearing.

Now, I'm not going to conclude that Fascism Is Upon Us just because we have an administration that not only can't find the Constitution but apparently doesn't know there is one. Too early in the year for that. Long way to go. Got to save your indignation. But it is unpleasantly reminiscent of Watergate, isn't it? That's what we're looking at here, folks -- not just constitutional deafness, but moral turp as well. All we need is one bag job and an alert night security man.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.