Boehner Proposes New Ethics Task Force

Posted March 29, 2007 at 11:21am

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) wants to create a bipartisan task force to assess and clarify the chamber’s “hopelessly broken” ethics rules, he said today in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Members on both sides of the aisle are understandably frustrated because they know you can’t ‘clean up Congress’ with confusing rules that are as difficult to comply with as they are to enforce,” he wrote, referencing part of the Democrats’ campaign message from last year.

Boehner is proposing a working group made up of six to eight Members from both sides of the aisle with an even partisan split, “including a member of the ethics committee from each party (but neither its chairman nor ranking minority member), one elected leader from each party, and one or two additional Members from each side of the aisle,” he wrote. Boehner said the group should report back recommendations by July 1 to consider the potential reforms before the August break.

The last time the House created a successful bipartisan ethics task force was in 1997, headed up by then-Reps. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.).

In response to Boehner’s proposal, Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said, “The letter is being reviewed and the request will be taken under advisement.”

Republicans have criticized Democratic reforms enacted earlier this year in the House Rules package for being unilaterally and sometimes hastily written. Some of the new rules have caused consternation on both sides of the aisle, but Democrats have defended the reforms as keeping good on their effort to end a “culture of corruption” in the House under 12 years of Republican control.

Citing guidance memos from the ethics committee, known as “pink sheets,” Boehner lists a number of loopholes or examples of how some House ethics rules could overreach or may have unintended or unnecessary consequences, such as: “In order to go on a ‘first date’ with someone who happens to be a lobbyist, a staffer must agree to pay for his or her full share of the lunch or dinner, as well as anything else of value, such as a movie, concert or ballgame.”

Boehner argued that by seeking to uphold their campaign promises, Democrats wrote rules that are not clear or fair enough for all Members to follow without seeking constant guidance from the ethics panel, which offers private advice to Members on a case by case basis.

Most recently, Members have raised concerns about the new disclosure requirements for earmark requests, for which they must now certify that neither they nor their spouse stand to benefit financially from the request. The ethics committee released broad guidance on the new disclosure requirement this week that was characterized as “clear as mud” by Boehner’s office.

“Sadly, Democratic leaders straining to legitimize their campaign rhetoric have instead left Members — on both sides of the aisle — more vulnerable than ever to violating rules that are hard to define, riddled with logical inconsistencies, and utterly unlikely to prevent the sort of abuses that have properly sparked so much public outrage.”

Boehner’s request is likely to fall on deaf ears, as Pelosi has said the reforms were necessary because the GOP refused to take similar steps when it was in control. When Democrats were in the minority, Pelosi often sent similar letters requesting ethics reforms to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who regularly ignored her proposals.

There already is a bipartisan eight-member task force under way, headed up by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that is examining the merits of creating an independent entity to conduct the chamber’s ethics investigations rather than the peer review system that currently exists. They are expected to report back to leadership in May.