AUSTIN -- It takes a Texas Republican to get that fine, hairline reading on the ethical sensitivity scale we all prize so highly. Thus, it comes as no surprise that a couple of six-packs of Texas Republican congressmen have signed up to endorse Rep. Roy Blunt, Tom DeLay's chosen successor, in the House leadership fight. Glad to see they're taking this ethical stuff seriously.

Why else support a man of whom the director of CongressWatch observes, "[His] tenure in Congress has been marked by exchanges of favors between himself and special interests, and a deep embrace of lobbyists. He is an architect of today's sleazy, big-money politics, not the agent of change that Congress so desperately needs right now to regain credibility with the public." Just the man for our delegation.

Texas Republicans are now being led Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, chair of the critical Energy and Commerce Committee. DeLay sits in on their meetings by speakerphone. Barton, just the man for the job in these ethically sensitive times. He's going to spend next weekend aboard a private train with lobbyists who pay $2,000 for the privilege. After a seven-hour run from Fort Worth to San Antonio, there will be cocktails, an evening tour of the Alamo, dinner and breakfast on Sunday.

The Dallas Morning News reports the invitation reads, "During the ride, we'll have lots of time to talk, play some Texas Hold 'Em, and enjoy some great down home Texas food. This is about as good as it gets."

It's the delicatesse of the invite that I appreciate, and I think the price is right, too -- only $2K for hours of uninterrupted access to the chairman whose committee has jurisdiction over about half of what Congress does -- including oil policy, pro baseball, Medicare and environmental regulation.

Barton's campaign manager told the Morning News, "It's just a normal fund-raiser. You've got to have a fund-raiser if you're going to raise money and have a campaign. Everybody does it."

That's always been one of my least favorite excuses, "Everybody does it." You can't find a mother who will let her 5-year-old get away with that, but politicians often whip it out as though it held moral water.

In this unhappy case it has the advantage of being true: Yup, pretty much everybody does do it. The root of the rot is the way federal (and most state) campaigns are financed. The hoary political saying is, "You got to dance with them what brung you," meaning you vote with the people who paid to get you there. And that would be organized economic special interests, PACs and lobbyists.

Tom DeLay made his pact with the devil when he signed on to expand the Newt Gingrich/Grover Norquist "K Street Project" to turn the entire lobby into an arm of the Republican Party. Members of the lobby were literally called in by Republican leaders to act as auxiliary whips, assigned to recalcitrant members from districts with a special economic vulnerability to a particular special interest.

The corruption of Congress has reached such a noxious level, the country is simply falling down a hole. Tax cuts for the rich! Reckless spending on everyone but those who need it most! Not a grown-up in sight. There is no sense of responsibility. The Republicans' response is to elevate Mr. Blunt, a man who represents zero improvement. Talk about not getting it: Tom DeLay is losing in his own district, 36 percent to 49 percent for "any Democrat." Wouldn't you think Texas congressmen would sit up and take notice of something like that?

I think we can rely upon the Democrats to seize the moment and punt. Their best play, of course, is to take the reform issue and own it, to go long, for the whole reform package every goo-goo group in America has been agitating for years -- starting with public campaign financing for Congress. The package should include changes in House rules, lobby rules -- and even though it is done at the state level, proposals for non-partisan redistricting.

I can almost hear the condescending cynics: "You don't really think you can get the money out of politics, do you?" I guarantee you can do it for several cycles -- and do you know what happens when it starts to creep back in again? You reform again! Perpetual reform, a truly great concept. No human institution is ever going to remain perfect, they have to be watched and adjusted like any other mechanism. Why use that as a defeatist excuse for doing nothing at all?

What matters here is not what the Republicans or the Democrats do -- it's what you do before November. Sit up, join up, stir it up, get online, get in touch, find out who's raising hell and join them. No use waiting on a bunch of wussy politicians.

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 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.