Ethical Aspirations

Posted March 18, 2005 at 2:36pm

It strikes us as highly incongruous that the chairman of the House ethics committee would be vowing to create an “ethical culture” in the House — and that his ranking Democrat would support him — at a time when the House is roiled with accusations that its ethical climate has reached new lows, and when Democrats are refusing to let the committee do business because of it.

The avalanche of negative publicity and Democratic criticism about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), combined with the related news about GOP-imposed ethics rules and personnel changes, have helped produce a plunge in poll ratings on public approval of Congress. House Republicans, while publicly defending their leader, also sound restive when speaking “on background” about the situation.

We’d support the proposals for committee upgrades offered by ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) — if they were preceded by two steps. The first is a reversal of the GOP-imposed rule requiring a majority vote before the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct can initiate an ethics investigation. The second is the creation of a special panel, possibly of distinguished ex-Members, to conduct an overall review of House ethics rules and procedures.

Given the committee’s present gridlock-enforced dormancy, however, it makes no sense for the committee to receive — as Hastings has requested and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) has endorsed — a 55 percent increase in its budget. Nor does it make any sense to double the committee’s investigative staff when the panel is structured to deadlock about whether to proceed with sensitive investigations.

At a minimum, the House must repeal its majority-rule requirement so that if the committee splits along party lines, an investigation will commence after 90 days. It should also repeal the rule allowing one lawyer to represent more than one client, a device seemingly designed to prevent the committee from hearing conflicting — one might substitute “revealing” — testimony in a dispute.

As for the Democrats, instead of trying to make political hay out of questions about DeLay’s conduct, they ought to have the gumption to file an ethics complaint against him if they feel it’s merited. Since the two parties still avoid filing such complaints — the better to speechify, apparently — we believe it’s advisable to return to the pre-1997 system under which outside groups were entitled to file an ethics complaint against a Member. As a check and balance, the committee should be able to dismiss such complaints if they are frivolous.

On a near party-line vote, the House last week rejected a proposal by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to create a bipartisan task force on House ethics. We wouldn’t expect Republicans to yield to a strictly partisan proposal. But the idea is a good one.

One item on the agenda for such a task force should be to examine whether it’s possible to prevent special interests from using nonprofit entities to finance junkets for Members designed to lobby them, without at the same time barring travel for legitimate educational purposes.

Hastings is right to aspire to establish an “ethical culture” in the House. But aspirations, and added money, won’t be enough.