House Ethics Task Force Still Stuck in Neutral

Posted July 31, 2007 at 6:45pm

While House Democrats scored a major legislative victory with the overwhelming passage of a lobbying and ethics reform bill Tuesday, a separate effort to create an independent commission to review ethics complaints has been stuck in neutral for the better part of the past two months.

Democratic leaders asserted Tuesday that despite the delay, the task force established to review the House ethics complaint process remains integral to their reform plans.

“It’s continuing its work,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a Tuesday press conference.

“We should have something very soon from that task force,” Pelosi added, echoing a statement she made in early June. The task force was initially supposed to complete its work by May 1.

The lead Republican on the panel said there’s been little or no activity for weeks. “There’s nothing new that I’m aware of at this point,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who could not recall the last meeting.

Smith said no party was to blame for the lack of momentum behind the proposal, citing widespread concerns. “Lots of ethics rules are unsettling to a lot of Members,” said Smith, who credited his counterpart, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), for being “straightforward and fair” in their meetings.

Capuano insisted Tuesday that the task force is making progress and said that while the eight-member task force has not met recently, he has held sessions on concerns raised by colleagues, though he declined to offer details. He reiterated that there will be no proposal before the August break. “We did this, hit some bumps, went back, tried again,” Capuano said.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Public Citizen, said Tuesday that his understanding was that the task force was not supposed to try again in earnest until after the August break, although he was pessimistic about its chances.

“I’m going with the assumption that the task force is going to fall on their face and not offer any meaningful proposal,” Holman said, noting that he has refocused his group’s efforts on freshman Democratic lawmakers who are likely to offer a broader ethics reform package when the House returns in September.

One GOP lawmaker said Tuesday that it was his understanding that the task force was likely to drop an earlier proposal to allow outside groups to file ethics complaints only if they disclose their funding sources. Filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997.

“Everything sort of came to a screeching halt when these outside groups decided to keep their books closed from the American public,” Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) said. “The whole idea has not gained traction in either party.”

While some signs of momentum are evident — the GOP lawmakers on the task force were tentatively scheduled to meet Tuesday — Tiahrt said he did not sense enough support in the House to pass any sweeping reform.

“I think the real question is ‘Have Members lost faith in the system?’ and if they have lost faith in the system then we either need to rejuvenate the system or build a new one,” Tiahrt said. “There just doesn’t seem to be much momentum for that now.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the task force will not be allowed to languish in the shadow of the broader House-passed reform legislation, which is expected to reach the Senate on Thursday. “We need to have a strong ethics committee,” he said as he left the weekly Democratic Caucus meeting, but he added that he “would hope” to see the task force complete its work this fall.

“We have an obligation to ensure that the ethics committee does the job that it was constituted to perform. It did not do so in the recent Congresses,” Hoyer said on the House floor.

Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), who chairs the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, declined to comment on the task force, stating: “It’s probably a conflict of interest for me to talk about it.”

The only lawmakers who actively and vocally are pressing for reforms appear to be Democratic freshmen, many of whom campaigned on anti-corruption platforms in the fall. “There is a real momentum among freshmen to see that through,” Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) said. But aside from the freshmen, many other rank-and-file Members are questioning the need to implement further reforms.

“I’m sick and tired of this self-flagellation,” said one Democratic lawmaker.