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New Ethics Plan Already Under Fire

More than six months past their deadline, leaders of a special task force established to overhaul the House ethics process remain coy about the group’s work, even as reform advocates consider attacking a forthcoming proposal as too weak.

Both Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the task force’s chairman, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member, have remained tight-lipped about the panel’s efforts after Members rejected a preliminary proposal — which included the idea of creating a new, outside ethics body to vet complaints — in early summer, prompting the panel to return to negotiations while refusing to discuss the details, other than to acknowledge the panel is actively meeting.

“We’re getting close but we don’t have a final product quite yet,” Smith said Wednesday. Neither lawmaker would commit to an official deadline for the task force.

Despite that silence, however, some key conclusions from the task force already are clear, according to outside reform advocates tracking the process: The recommended new ethics body will not have subpoena power, and it will not accept complaints from outside groups — a proposition that raised the ire of Members earlier this year. Filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997.

Capuano has acknowledged that he has met regularly with reform organizations, although he declined to detail the final proposal now under discussion.

Reform advocates said because of those deficiencies, and other provisions likely to be excluded from the final product, the task force is poised to offer a solution too weak to gain their support. They said it’s time for House leaders to step in and take over.

“There is no reason to believe this task force is prepared to take real steps that would effectively strengthen the ethics enforcement process,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “It’s time for the leadership to start looking for a different way of achieving that goal.”

Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center said she’s “over the task force. Whether what they come out with is good or bad, it’s still up to [Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)]. It’s really her call.”

Capuano said Wednesday that he is aware the coalition is considering issuing a letter critical of his panel’s efforts, which have long since missed the May 1 deadline set by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“I assume they’re making sure we don’t lose focus ... I don’t blame them,” he said.

But the Massachusetts lawmaker demurred when asked how much pressure leaders have placed on him to complete work on the ethics plans, stating: “Nobody wants it done more than they do.”

Democratic aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have insisted that the task force has not been dismissed in the wake of ethics and lobbying reforms signed into law earlier this year.

“The task force has continued to meet and work on its proposal. The Speaker looks forward to receiving and reviewing their recommendations,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

Reform backers said while there is still time for the task force to turn its recommendations around, the likelihood of that happening is quickly diminishing.

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