Democrats’ Ethics Proposal Is Full of Fatal Flaws

Posted February 29, 2008 at 3:01pm

I serve as the senior Republican member of the Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement, which was charged by the Speaker and House Minority Leader with evaluating whether a new ethics board should be created that is composed of people who are not elected Members of the House of Representatives. The Democratic members of the task force are supporting such a proposal. Republican task force members cannot.

The Democrats’ proposal abandons the task of reforming the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and would hamper the current ethics enforcement process.

We join the chorus of those who decry the “black hole” of the ethics committee. That “black hole” should be changed into a guiding star. But that can only be done by reforming the ethics committee itself. Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has said, “The Democrats claimed they were cleaning up Congress and that the ethics committee would have teeth, but so far, all we see are gums.” Even worse, the Democrats’ new ethics proposal creates an entirely new entity that invites partisanship and is undemocratic.

The Democrats’ proposal is fundamentally flawed because it fails to reform the ethics committee’s own internal procedures. The very existence of the Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement and the creation of another ethics entity would be an admission of the failure of the ethics committee.

The Democrats’ proposal is undemocratic. This country, and the House, is founded on the principle of rule by majority. Yet the Democrats’ proposal allows ethics inquiries to be initiated upon the request of only two out of six board members.

Furthermore, the Democrats’ proposal requires ethics probes to go forward even when majority support among the board members cannot be obtained. This is undemocratic. It means partisan deadlocks without majority support will allow ethics probes to continue.

The Democrats’ proposal invites partisanship. Under it, either the Speaker or the Minority Leader for any reason can withhold their support for joint appointments and appoint their own candidates on a partisan basis. So, two board members appointed by either the Speaker or the Minority Leader could then initiate unlimited ethics inquiries against Members! That is an open invitation to a partisan free-for-all. Inevitable leaks regarding such inquiries would seriously damage the reputations of innocent Members.

The Democrats’ proposal would undermine the ethics committee’s own investigations. The short 30-day deadlines the independent ethics board faces under the Democrats’ proposal would pressure the board to conduct ethics probes in a hasty manner that could jeopardize the integrity of both its own evaluations and any subsequent investigation by the ethics committee.

The Democrats’ proposal would turn the following “nightmare scenario” into a stark reality codified in House Rules. Under the proposal, two people appointed on a partisan basis and unaccountable to voters could conduct a campaign to smear the reputations of either Democrats or Republicans. That partisan campaign could continue even if it did not have the support of a majority of the independent board.

The Democrats’ proposal does not embody the bipartisanship required to produce ethics enforcement the public can trust. It should be defeated if brought up for a vote.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is ranking member on the Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement. Republican Reps. Todd Tiahrt (Kan.), David Hobson (Ohio) and Dave Camp (Mich.) are members of the task force.