No Consensus Yet for Ethics Task Force

Posted June 12, 2007 at 6:36pm

The eight-member House ethics task force remains unable to agree on the scope of a proposed independent body tasked with filtering ethics complaints as a meeting of the group Monday night failed to produce a final proposal, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to raise concerns.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano, who is leading the task force, said Tuesday that it is not yet scheduled to meet again this week and declined to say when the task force ultimately will complete its work. A Democratic leadership aide said they were hopeful the proposal would be rolled out next week.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Capuano’s Republican counterpart on the task force, said Tuesday that it was in “no rush” to offer its proposal and said there are still a number of specifics to nail down.

For example, Smith said one of the biggest sticking points is how and whether to require outside advocacy groups that may file complaints to disclose their funding sources to make sure they are not front groups for political entities. “There’s a question of what that threshold should be” for disclosure, Smith said.

The Texas lawmaker said he has not yet briefed the full House Republican Conference on the details of the provision. He said the task force is working well together to reach a final agreement, and he lauded Capuano for leading a “truly bipartisan” effort.

Capuano has said he expects the bill will pass on the floor, and even Members — particularly freshmen — with concerns about the proposal acknowledge that it is expected to pass. When asked if he would support the effort in its current form, first-term Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) said he likely would.

“People are really concerned that there will be unethical people that will file ethics complaints merely for political motivation,” Ellsworth said. “Honest people are going to be accused of things regardless of any merit. … That’s the only real concern, how to deal with that.”

At least one sitting member of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), said he supports the creation of the outside entity. The task force is expected to recommend the creation of a four-person outside panel made up of former judges or former Members who are not lobbyists to screen ethics complaints and make recommendations to the House ethics committee, which is not required to take up the recommendations.

It also would — for the first time since the chamber’s rules were changed in 1997 at the urging of a similar bipartisan task force — allow outside groups and individuals the ability to file complaints, but Capuano said they also would put in place safeguards in an effort to restrict potential frivolous complaints.

The proposal is not expected to affect the ethics committee, and Green said outside screening could be beneficial. “Somehow we have to have some way for the ethics committee to get information other than coming from the Member,” Green said. “So this is a way that we get that but without just getting inundated.”

Green said he believed the task force’s work was nearly complete and the key now is to give Democratic leaders time to explain the proposal and give the rank and file the ability to air their concerns.

“They’re still trying to let folks vent on either side,” Green said. “You don’t want to run over people.”