House Will Tackle Ethics Plan in January

Posted December 19, 2007 at 6:40pm

The House will take up legislation in January to establish an independent office to review and submit formal complaints to the Commmittee on Standards of Official Conduct in an effort to strengthen the chamber’s internal ethics process.

A House task force charged with reviewing the chamber’s ethics system introduced the measure Wednesday in conjunction with a 50-page report submitted to House leadership, following a nearly year-long review period and numerous revisions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she had yet to read the final recommendation but said the House will take up the proposal as an internal rules package when the chamber reconvenes in January.

“It’s important for the public to think we’re living up to the highest ethical standard,” Pelosi said Wednesday.

Under the proposal, the House would establish an Office of Congressional Ethics to initiate and review allegations of Member misconduct, and advise the ethics committee of its findings.

The body would be composed of six individuals — none of whom could be current Members or registered lobbyists — selected by the Speaker and Minority Leader. Those individuals would serve four-year terms and could be removed only by agreement of both parties’ leaders.

Unlike a draft of the proposal circulated last month, the new ethics body will not provide any avenue for the general public to file complaints. Under the previous draft, the office would have provided a public forum, but would not have been required to follow up on submissions.

Instead, the six-member board would be charged with initiating its own reviews, while Member-initiated complaints would continue to be filed directly with the ethics committee. Filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997.

“I believe that the proposal we submit offers the best aspects of the concept — transparency and an end to the ‘old boy network,’” Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the task force’s chairman, wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter.

“I also believe that this proposal avoids the worst facets of the concept — subjecting Members and staff to unnecessary attacks on our reputations and allowing people to render final judgment on our actions without fully understanding all aspects of the matters at hand. Finally, Members of the House will be able to honestly tell their constituents that future widely reported allegations against Members will be fairly and transparently reviewed,” the letter states.

Republicans on the six-member task force withheld their endorsement of the proposal Wednesday, however, asserting they would further review the proposal during the Christmas recess and would also submit their own recommendations next month.

“We’re working on the Republican report and we expect that to be finished in January,” Lamar Smith (Texas), the panel’s ranking member, said Wednesday.

The Texan declined to comment on the plan’s future, but Republicans have raised concerns about the existing proposal, and suggested the true target of reforms should not be an outside entity, but the ethics committee itself.

Yet Pelosi, an alumna of the ethics panel, asserted that it will also be under additional scrutiny.

“They’ll have to justify their existence too,” she said, and later added: “The ethics committee is going to have to perform. … But I think having this outside entity makes it better.”

Capuano remained upbeat despite Republican reservations, noting that GOP members of the panel had not opposed the report, despite withholding their endorsement.

“I am actually pleasantly surprised,” Capuano said. “There is still hope for bipartisanship.”

The Massachusetts lawmaker said he will present the full report to the Democratic Caucus in January. In addition to advocating for an outside review panel, the report contains several related recommendations, such as the establishment of a long-term task force to evaluate the ethics process.

“I think it would be helpful to have an ongoing review of the entire process,” Capuano said.

The task force proposal drew mixed reviews from reform organizations, including the endorsement of Common Cause and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, as well as Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute (a Roll Call contributing writer) and Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution.

But other entities, including the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters and Public Citizen criticized the proposal because the new office would not be granted subpoena powers to conduct its investigations.

“Without subpoena power or access to subpoena power, the office can be ignored in its efforts to interview individuals and obtain documents that may be central to the ethics matter at hand,” said a statement from the organizations.