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Shays Wants House to Have Outside Ethics Office

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) vowed Wednesday to push ahead with a proposal to establish an independent office to investigate ethics violations against Members, despite indications that the GOP leadership will oppose the plan.

Acknowledging that fellow House Republicans have yet to embrace the proposal, which would create an autonomous Office of Public Integrity, the Connecticut lawmaker conceded that the legislation could face a tough legislative fight.

He characterized the bill’s current standing as “about as good as [what] campaign finance reform had in the early stages of that effort,” referring to the seven-year effort to enact what eventually became the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who has signed on as co-sponsor of the bill, expressed a more optimistic outlook during a Wednesday press conference on the bill. “We are going to try to build support for this concept of an investigative body outside of the Members ourselves,” she said.

But the proposal already faces opposition from House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said Tuesday that he opposes the creation of such an office, adding that he would not want the proposal included in a lobbying reform package now being assembled.

“I think Members are in the best position to judge other Members. ... I have never been for that and won’t be, and I don’t expect it to be part of our package,” said Boehner, adding that he expects the House will vote on the reform package before the Easter recess next month.

A near-identical proposal has also faced resistance in the Senate, where lawmakers were expected to take up an amendment offered Wednesday by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) that would have added the measure to that chamber’s reform package. Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee had earlier stripped the measure from the package.

“Maybe not this year, but we’ll keep at it,” Shays said in a separate interview. “I learned a long time ago ‘never going to happen’ [only] means it won’t happen now.”

Under the proposal, co-authored by Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), Congress would establish an independent office responsible for investigating violations of ethics rules in both chambers, as well as advising Members and staff on those rules, and providing “informal guidance” to registered lobbyists on compliance.

The office would also receive all disclosure reports filed by Members, staff and lobbyists.

The body would be led by a nonpartisan director to be jointly selected by Republican and Democratic leadership. Shays suggested that position, which could not be filled by a former Member, would require a “judicial temperament.”

“It needs to be someone with impeccable credentials,” he added.

Unlike existing House rules that limit the ability to file complaints with the House ethics panel to only Members, the new office would allow anyone to file an investigation request.

“We have to have a system where it’s easy to report a problem,” Wilson said.

In an effort to curb superfluous complaints, however, the legislation would allow the office to ban any person from filing grievances if their complaints are deemed “frivolous.”

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