Alternative Would Provide Real Ethics Reform

Posted March 3, 2008 at 3:21pm

My colleagues and I in the House were scheduled to consider a bill addressing ethics reform last week, but consideration was postponed because of a bipartisan push from Members to take up alternative pieces of legislation, including a proposal crafted by myself and my colleague across the aisle, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).

As you may know, I have been championing ethics reform since the 2006 campaign. In fact, early last year I introduced the House Ethics Commission Establishment Act (H.R. 1754), a bill that would establish an independent ethics entity composed of former Members of Congress like my predecessor, Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.). However, that bill lagged in committee and never had the opportunity to be voted on by my colleagues.

Not to be deterred, Congressman Wamp and I proposed a new bill that would go much further in enacting stronger ethics reform than the proposal Members were set to consider last week. I vowed during the last campaign to work for ethics reform, and I intend to make good on that promise — even if it means upsetting the plans of my own party’s leadership.

The image of the House has been tarnished by the reckless actions of a few; 2006, in particular, was a very trying year for Congress. Several Members of Congress were accused of, admitted to or found guilty of violating House ethics rules and, in some cases, even broke the law. People have lost faith in the government, largely because of these unfortunate instances. We must clean up Congress and prove to the American people that we are serious about enforcing the highest standards of conduct.

The Hill-Wamp proposal would establish the House Ethics Commission, an independent body made up of 12 individuals. The appointees would consist of three current Democratic Members of the House, three former Democratic Members, three current Republican Members and three former Republican Members. The six Democrats would be appointed by the House Republican leader and, in turn, the six Republicans would be selected by the House Democratic leader. Members would be required to serve a minimum of one term — two years — and no more than six years. The members would be appointed for varying terms, so as to add new members and new perspectives while retaining senior members with valuable experience.

The crux of the Hill-Wamp proposal is not only the makeup of the commission, but the significant powers it would hold. To ensure real ethics reform, the House Ethics Commission would retain the sole power to investigate ethics complaints, subpoena appropriate persons and issue recommendations to the full House regarding its findings and a suggested penalty for ethical infractions by Members. The House would be required to hold a straight up or down vote on the commission’s findings.

This proposal is the result of a true bipartisan effort. And it is rapidly gaining the support of Members from both sides of the aisle. Ethics reform should not be a partisan issue, and the proposal the House enacts should have widespread support.

We need to make sure reported ethics violations are investigated thoroughly and receive the time and attention they warrant. And this bill would do just that. I hope my colleagues are as serious as I am about enacting real ethics reforms.

Rep. Baron Hill is a Democrat from Indiana.