Ethical Delay

Posted November 16, 2007 at 5:14pm

More than six months past its deadline, the task force charged with revising the House ethics process is finally set to issue its report — and all indications are that its recommendations will fall short of setting up a system that will restore confidence in that process.

The task force, headed by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), will recommend establishment of a new Office of Congressional Ethics to screen ethics complaints, start its own initial investigations and refer them to the full Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, but the new body will lack subpoena power or the ability to receive complaints from outside groups.

In June, Capuano’s task force circulated a draft proposal that allowed for receipt of outside complaints, but Members shot it down by insisting that complaining groups had to disclose their donor lists, which they refused to do.

Watchdogs such as Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer say the outside-complaint issue is far less important than the fact that the new office will lack subpoena power. “We can always [informally] forward information on a case to the ethics committee or the new entity,” he told Roll Call. “But without subpoena power, the intermediary institution will just be a filter without the power to do anything.

“It will have no power to find out anything more than I could by reading the newspaper. Without the power to look into a charge and find out if there is a case or not, they’re just handcuffed.”

Wertheimer and other ethics groups contend that the new entity — a six-member body appointed by the respective party leaders — would not require statutory subpoena power of its own but could ask the ethics committee to issue subpoenas on its behalf.

Wertheimer said another concern was “transparency” — the past failure of the ethics committee to report in any way about cases it was investigating. “The entire Abramoff matter just disappeared into the ethics committee. No one ever said whether allegations were or weren’t being investigated or not — even whether the committee was holding off in deference to the Justice Department.

“There needs to be a process to protect against a matter’s falling into a black hole. The new panel ought to have to report if it decides to refer a case to the ethics committee or drops it,” he said.

These strike us as sound objections. If this new office does indeed initiate some investigations of its own, whether based on press reports or information from other sources, that will be a step in the right direction. But it appears likely to us that, with Members disinclined to file complaints against each other and outside groups still barred from doing so, legitimate cases of potential wrongdoing by lawmakers still may go unaddressed as Members will continue to worry more about tarring each other’s reputations than about rooting out transgressions.

Meantime, Capuano says he wants his task force to be extended to oversee the ethics reforms that Congress already has adopted. We have no objection to that in principle, but first it would be good to see this new office in action — and whether it’s capable of improving the House’s woeful record of policing itself.