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Following a year in which it conducted more than 100 inquiries and a rare public trial, the House Ethics Committee has had a glacial start in the 112th Congress.
Although the Ethics panel has taken small steps in 112th Congress — issuing committee rules in February, posting wanted ads for staff vacancies — sources familiar with the panel, as well as government reform advocates who monitor the committee, agreed the panel is moving slowly.
“Clearly the Ethics Committee has been struggling in this Congress. It is in minor disarray,” Public Citizens’ Lisa Gilbert said. “There are outstanding issues.”
Among the problems that Gilbert cited are staff vacancies that account for nearly a third of the panel’s authorized staff.
At a recent House Administration Committee hearing on annual budgets, Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) said only 20 of the 29 staff positions are filled. That includes two aides, Deputy Chief Counsel Morgan Kim and attorney Stacey Sovereign, who have been on administrative leave from the panel since November.
Bonner said the committee has been inundated with applications for the open positions but also indicated it could take the panel months to fill some of those posts.
Other vacancies include the panel’s staff director and chief counsel as well as five other counsel jobs. Both Bonner and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) must also agree on who should serve as the panel’s top aide.
In addition, as of Wednesday, Republican and Democratic leaders had yet to announce the slate of Members who could be called to carry out investigations for the Ethics panel.
Under House rules, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) must each nominate 10 lawmakers — in addition to those Members on the Ethics Committee — to serve on investigative subcommittees.
Bonner declined to comment through a spokesman on whether the lack of a subcommittee pool is affecting the panel’s ability to complete several outstanding inquiries.
But sources close to the Ethics panel said the lack of a subcommittee pool is not a significant concern — the full committee may pursue investigations on its own — noting that the nominations have, in some years, occurred as late as May.
According to a January report, however, the Ethics Committee had more than a dozen “investigative matters” ongoing at the end of the 111th Congress, including two that had been under the control of investigative subcommittees.
“There’s a desire from our community and then from the public at large to see outstanding ethics cases resolved. Certainly the Congress suffers from the public having a lack of confidence in their ability to police themselves, so any outstanding cases only feed that problem,” Gilbert said.