Misgivings Aside, Ethics Sails Along

Posted February 26, 2008 at 6:43pm

House Democrats offered a lukewarm response to the chamber’s newest ethics reform proposal on Tuesday — including a handful of outright defections — but lawmakers reluctantly said they will support the measure on Thursday when it is scheduled to reach the floor.

Republicans, having remained mum, narrowed their disagreement down to one point, while freshman Democrats said they would try to bolster it.

Under the proposal, the House would establish an outside Office of Congressional Ethics to initiate ethics investigations and issue recommendations to the full House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. It is a product of a six-member task force established to evaluate the ethics complaint process.

The office would be made up of six individuals, none of whom could be current Members or registered lobbyists.

Several Democratic lawmakers, who would not speak for attribution, panned the proposal Tuesday as unnecessary but acknowledged they would back it in large part because it is politically untenable to vote against an ethics enforcement measure.

But Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a vocal opponent of the measure, encouraged his colleagues to do so: “I hope that more people will wake up and vote no on it.”

He dismissed the proposal as redundant, arguing that the ethics committee should be sufficient to police lawmakers.

“Nothing is going to satisfy the cannibals,” Abercrombie said, in a criticism of independent Congressional watchdog organizations. “The question is, do you have trust and faith in the people put on the ethics committee?”

Although some freshman Democratic lawmakers had pushed their ethics legislation — most notably including subpoena powers for the review board — those Members said on Tuesday that they will support the leadership-backed measure.

“I’m not intending to sacrifice the good for the perfect,” said Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.). Hodes, along with Reps. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio), said they will offer an amendment in the Rules Committee to add subpoena power to the legislation.

Murphy acknowledged some hesitation among his colleagues but predicted it would ultimately pass, even if amendments are not permitted.

“There’s clearly some angst in the Caucus, but that’s natural. … It’s a brand-new process and people are understandably concerned with how it’s going to play out,” Murphy said.

House Republican leaders are scheduled to meet this morning to formalize their response. Some GOP lawmakers probably will oppose the bill.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), ranking member on the task force assigned to evaluate the ethics process, said he opposed the proposal as it is now written.

In particular, Smith cited provisions that require only two of the office’s six members to initiate an investigation. That provision, he said, would give the outside body’s officials “unbridled authority” that could “very easily lead to ethics wars.”

“That is an open invitation to a partisan free-for-all. Leaks regarding such inquiries would seriously damage the reputations of innocent Members,” Smith wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter that is to be distributed today.

In an interview, he said he will offer an amendment to the Rules Committee to increase the requirement to four members to begin an investigation, effectively requiring bipartisan agreement for the panel to function.

“I think both Republicans and Democrats will think twice before supporting this when they find out only two members can trigger an unlimited number of investigations,” Smith said.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired the task force, said the minimal number is needed to prevent partisan gridlock.

“The whole idea is that we’re trying to have these things heard. If the very first step requires a majority to do it, nothing will ever get heard,” he said.

In addition, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday that he anticipates amendments will not be allowed.

“Is it perfect? Nothing we would do is perfect. But it does facilitate and give confidence to the public that when wrongdoing is perceived or alleged that it will be given attention in a process that has more visibility for the public,” Hoyer said. “They need to have confidence that we’re acting properly.”