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New Ethics Proposal Isn’t Perfect, but It’s a Solid Step Forward

Many of us, understanding the sensitivity of Members to the independent counsel-type threat, suggested an indirect access to subpoenas — letting the independent panel go to the ethics chairman and ranking member to request a subpoena if they needed to talk to an important and recalcitrant witness. There are easy ways to make that work under Congressional rules, perhaps involving one of the ethics committee members in the questioning. But that effort failed. The panel can identify recalcitrant or uncooperative witnesses in its reports, and recommend that they be subpoenaed subsequently by the ethics committee, but it would be better if there were more teeth, and I hope the House adds a way to do this.

Even so, the task force recommendation is a big step forward, filling the gap left by the last reforms. The key to its success, of course, comes after it is adopted, and Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) meet to pick the first appointees. They needn’t all be former lawmakers or staffers. I can think of some people with towering integrity, like Ken Feinberg, who headed the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, or Harvard political theorist and ethics expert Dennis Thompson, who would be excellent.

But if Pelosi and Boehner picked former Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) to chair the panel, and added in people like former Sens. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Hank Brown (R-Colo.) and ex-Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), John Brademas (D-Ind.), Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), Ron Mazzoli (D-Ky.), Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), Abner Mikva (D-Ill.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa), we could have a real rejuvenation of ethical standards on Capitol Hill, and — miracle of miracles — perhaps even force the Senate to rethink its foolish opposition to the idea.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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