Revised Ethics Plan Unveiled

Republicans Unimpressed

Posted March 3, 2008 at 6:33pm

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) unveiled a series of revisions to his contentious proposal for an external ethics review office on Monday — aimed primarily at ensuring bipartisanship in the new body — in hopes of gaining needed support when Democratic leaders make a second attempt to bring it to the House floor. The proposal could be considered later this week, though the floor schedule has yet to be set.

But the effort at bipartisanship failed to impress House Republicans, who quickly rejected the proposal while touting their own alternative for reforming the ethics system.

“Last week, many of you raised thoughtful concerns about the proposal put forth by the Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement. … We heard you and will amend the proposal accordingly,” Capuano, chairman of the task force charged with reviewing the ethics process, wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter issued Monday. “I understand and respect that some Members will continue to have basic philosophical concerns about the creation of any independent entity. Unfortunately, we must respectfully disagree.

“For those who support such an entity, these amendments should address the concerns expressed to me,” he added.

The House was to vote last week to establish an Office of Congressional Ethics that would initiate ethics investigations and issue recommendations to the full House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, part of an ongoing effort to strengthen the chamber’s internal review process.

But Democratic leaders pulled the ethics reform measure from the House floor schedule — after the Rules Committee had already begun a hearing on the legislation — citing a desire to review a last-minute Republican proposal, but also facing lukewarm support among their own rank-and-file about the creation of a review panel operating outside the House itself.

Nonetheless, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated on Thursday that she believed the original resolution would pass on the House floor this week, with “some tweaking.”

“The Speaker has said that she is open to changes based on suggestions from Democrats and Republicans, but the structure of the independent ethics board must remain intact,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

Pelosi had not seen Capuano’s revisions Monday afternoon; the Massachusetts lawmakers said he had not submitted the changes to leadership in advance of his “Dear Colleague,” nor had he conferred with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the task force’s ranking member.

“At the moment they’re just mine,” Capuano said on Monday. “The bottom line is … people either agree or don’t agree that we can use an independent entity.”

In fact, none of the proposed amendments would drastically alter the proposed Office of Congressional Ethics; most are aimed at increasing bipartisanship within the panel.

Among the significant changes, Majority and Minority Leaders would be required to jointly appoint the office’s six members. The existing bill allowed members to be appointed separately if agreement could not be reached within a 90-day period. The panel’s membership would still be limited, and current Members and lobbyists would not be eligible.

In addition, the office could initiate investigations only with the consent of one member from each party. The original proposal allowed any two members, even those from the same party, to call for an investigation.

“This was the most frequently cited concern,” Capuano’s letter stated. “Many Members felt that allowing the initiators to be people appointed by the same party leader did not sufficiently deter partisan-motivated witch hunts.”

The amendments also include a provision that would require only three members to vote to extend or terminate any investigation, rather than the four members required to terminate a review under the initial proposal.

Capuano also outlined a handful of amendments that would aim to stem “leaks” from the new office, including subjecting staff to the same confidentiality rules now applied to ethics committee aides. It would also ban both aides and appointed members from seeking federal office within three years of serving on the panel.

But the House GOP leadership ridiculed the Capuano proposal Monday, characterizing the ethics as measure “a silly and obvious political dodge,” and repeated earlier criticism over the decision to establish a new external body rather than to reform the existing House ethics committee.

“There is no point in grafting a pointless new bureaucratic layer onto the broken ethics process without fixing the Ethics Committee,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement on Monday. “The best way to deter unethical law-breakers in Congress is to make certain they face real law enforcement: the FBI and the Justice Department.”

Under the Republicans’ alternative measure, the ethics committee would be significantly revised.

Among the changes, House leaders from both parties would be required to jointly appoint panel members, including the addition of four former House Members. The committee would also be required to publish monthly reports outlining its work, and any matters deadlocked by partisanship would be turned over to the Justice Department after a 90-day period. In addition, the House Inspector General would become a funnel for the public to file ethics complaints, a process that has been limited to Members since 1997.

Capuano lashed back at the GOP’s proposal on Monday, asserting that it contains “very troubling provisions.” In particular, the Massachusetts lawmaker cited disagreement with the requirement that all deadlocked complaints be forwarded to the Justice Department.

“There is no distinction between an allegation of improperly accepting a cup of coffee and an allegation of accepting a million-dollar bribe. Moreover, this proposal would refer even violations of House Rules to the Department of Justice, an area over which that Department has no jurisdiction,” Capuano asserted.

The full Democratic Caucus is expected to discuss the ethics reforms at its weekly meeting tonight, according to a Democratic aide.