Majority Bringing Higher Ethical Standards to House

Posted April 20, 2007 at 6:17pm

Our nation deserves a House of Representatives defined by honesty and accountability. Indeed, I could not have put it better than House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) did in his recent Guest Observer (“Wanted: Common Sense in Ethics Rules,” April 17) on the state of ethics in Congress, namely that “The American people have every right to expect Members to uphold the highest ethical standards.”

I wholeheartedly agree, as do my Democratic colleagues. The rampant corruption of recent Republican Congresses culminated in the 109th, which began with an assault on the ethics committee and ended with indictments and resignations at the highest levels. Then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), then-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff were turned into household names, for all of the wrong reasons. What’s more, an unethical and broken legislative process produced numerous bills that failed to address the most pressing needs of working Americans.

When they went to the polls in November, what people nationwide wanted was a Congress they could be proud of again. That is what my fellow Democrats and I have worked to give them every day since Jan. 4 — starting with the new ethics package we passed as our first order of business.

Our reforms were the product of numerous consultations with experts and scholars and incorporated a variety of suggestions about how best to stamp out corruption. That broad collaborative process resulted in a bill that had an equally broad base of bipartisan support. On the opening day of the 110th Congress, Democrats were joined by Mr. Boehner and nearly 200 Republicans in passing the House’s new ethics rules.

Since increasing transparency was a major goal, our reforms were made public in February 2006, nearly a year before they were voted on. The restoration of integrity to the legislative process was an equally central aim. To that end, we banned gifts from lobbyists and closed loopholes that had allowed special interests to purchase undue access to the halls of the Capitol. Lobbyists and the organizations that employ them are also now prohibited from funding, or even planning, travel for Members and staff. As a result, the all-expenses-paid junkets to Scotland that symbolized the previous Congress have become a thing of the past.

The Democratic ethics package also put an end to the now infamous “K Street Project” through which Republican Congressional leaders courted Washington’s growing army of influence peddlers. Perhaps most importantly, we ushered in a new era of fiscal responsibility by requiring the full disclosure of earmarked spending in all bills. All of the legislation passed by the House so far this year has adhered to this new requirement. Following a Congress during which federal spending ballooned along with the number of earmarks passed, this is a truly welcome change. We won’t be seeing more bridges to nowhere anytime soon.

As with all reform packages that make significant changes to an existing system, unintended consequences have cropped up, and the Democratic leadership has been addressing them in turn. For example, because of an accidental drafting error, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct interpreted reforms concerning the use of corporate jets to prohibit Members from using their own aircraft. (Unfortunately, thus far, the Republican leadership has refused to permit a unanimous consent procedure to correct the error.) There also has been some confusion surrounding what items staffers can accept during functions and meetings. While most situations can be resolved using common sense, mandatory ethics training sessions already have reached thousands of staffers to clarify lingering questions.

More important than this, however, is the new way that business is being done in the House. During recent years, Congress had become synonymous with corruption in the minds of most Americans. Democrats pledged to change that perception by changing the House itself. Tough new ethics rules were our first step, and the results are already easy to see.

Gone are accusations of malfeasance extending up into the highest reaches of the majority party. They have been replaced with the work Representatives are sent to Washington to do: numerous investigations conducted by a variety of committees; a long list of progressive legislation that already has been passed dealing with everything from stem cells to college affordability to energy independence to homeland security; and a renewed focus on finding solutions to the real challenges facing our nation at home and abroad.

Just as there are many other issues left for the Democratic Congress to address, so too will we continue improving the standards and codes of conduct that govern the House. My fellow Democrats and I look forward to working with members of the Republican leadership as we seek to further improve the ethics rules under which we all work. The bipartisan task force led by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) currently examining how best to enforce those rules is proof enough of that. And as we move forward, our goal will remain the same: the continued restoration of ethical conduct, transparency and accountability to a body that should know nothing else.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) is chairwoman of the Rules Committee.