Ethics Bill Could Hit House Floor

Posted February 22, 2008 at 6:33pm

A nearly yearlong endeavor to strengthen the House’s internal ethics process could finally reach the floor this week, according to the Democratic lawmaker leading the effort.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) said Friday that a proposal to establish an outside Office of Congressional Ethics, which would initiate ethics investigations and issue recommendations to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is undergoing a final review by Democratic staff and could be brought to a vote as early as this week.

“My leaders have decided it’s about time to move forward,” said Capuano, who chaired the special task force established in early 2007 to evaluate the ethics process. “We’ve been in discussion with some of the people on the Rules Committee.”

Under the legislation, introduced in December, the House would create an independent office to review and submit formal complaints to the ethics committee. The office would be composed of six individuals, none of whom could be current Members or registered lobbyists.

According to Capuano and Democratic aides, the proposal has been largely vetted with majority lawmakers — including those freshmen who had cited concerns about the proposed office’s lack of subpoena power — but House Republicans remain critical of the legislation.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the task force’s ranking member, along with other GOP members of the task force, refused to endorse either the body’s final report or the legislation in December.

The Texas lawmaker had indicated at that time that Republicans would introduce their own version of the legislation, but they have yet to do so.

Smith spokeswoman Christine McCarty said Friday: “We are waiting for Democrats to decide whether to bring it to the floor.”

Republicans have criticized various aspects of the proposal — including provisions that would require only two of six individuals in the new office to initiate an investigation — as well as asserting that the target of reform should be the ethics committee itself, rather than creating an outside entity.

Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) discussed the potential ethics changes at a private meeting Feb. 14, one GOP source said the leaders did not reach any agreement on the matter.

“The ball’s in their court,” the source said.

But a Democratic source familiar with the ethics measure disagreed, laying blame for the measure’s long incubation at Republicans’ feet.

“You have the Democratic Caucus on board, you have the public opinion on board, you have independent outside organizations who monitor Congress on board … editorial pages on board, the only people who seem to us to be equivocating at this time are Republicans,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.

The Democrat added that the Friday indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) — on 35 counts of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy related to the Arizonan’s efforts to get the federal government to buy land from his business partner — could help to push through the existing legislation.

In the meantime, Capuano said he has yet to brief the Democratic Caucus, but he did meet recently with freshman lawmakers and characterized the conversation as productive.

“They all thought it was a good concept. … In general they are very supportive,” he said.

It is expected, however, that Democrats will allow some amendments to be heard on the legislation.

Reps. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio), who have sponsored a competing proposal that would establish a similar office that would be granted subpoena power, could not be reached for comment Friday.