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Leaders Sifting Names For New Ethics Panel

House leaders are canvassing reform experts and academics in search of potential appointees for the six-member Office of Congressional Ethics, which Members approved amid raucous partisan bickering just before the spring recess.

Though no names appear to have been settled on, some reformers who participated in the ethics overhaul said they had been contacted by Democratic aides searching for candidates.

“It’s not at a level where they say what do you think about X” candidate, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer who participated in designing the new board, the first independent entity to be involved in the oft-criticized Congressional ethics process. “The sense that I got is that they certainly want to move as expeditiously as they can.”

Even if House leaders can rapidly agree on appropriate candidates for the six-member office, experts said it was unlikely the office would do much between now and next year because of election-year realities and the way the measure creating the office was written. Plus, the board must hire staff and do mundane things like get an office.

“Only the naive would have expected that there would be any chance of a fully functional, active body for much of this Congress,” Ornstein said.

“I think if the board got appointed this year and they got up and running, that’d be pretty good,” commented Sarah Dufendach, the vice president of legislative affairs for Common Cause, who consulted with the ethics task force headed by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) that recommended the office’s creation.

If there is “a good faith effort here to get this thing up and running with good, solid people, I’d be thrilled.”

Picks for the fledgling office cannot include current lawmakers or lobbyists. But several reformers pointed to former Members, and some academics, as natural candidates for the controversial slots.

“It’s the [ex-Rep.] Lee Hamiltons [D-Ind.] and the [ex-Sen.] George Mitchells [D-Maine] and the [ex-Sen.] Sam Nunns [D-Ga.] of the world who are the sort of prototypes,” said Gary Kalman, federal legislative director for U.S. Public Interest Research Groups.

“Those would be the sort of gold standard of the type of person you would want to serve,” Kalman added.

Reached on Friday, Hamilton, who since his retirement from Congress has taken on weighty positions like co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, said he had not been contacted about the position and didn’t know much about the new office.

“I’m not going to try to answer that. I just don’t know at this point,” Hamilton said when asked whether he would be willing to serve on the board.

On the Republican side, names like ex-Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.), the former chairman of the House ethics panel who was pushed out by GOP leaders in the squabble over investigating former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have been floated.

Hefley, 72, has been keeping an extremely low profile since he retired from the House in 2006; he and his wife now live on a ranch in Oklahoma. He could not be reached on Friday.

But one senior Republican aide nixed the name immediately, illustrating the pitfalls in picking ex-Members.

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