A Beginning

Posted March 21, 2008 at 2:36pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) deserves credit for tirelessly wheedling and cajoling her colleagues into finally creating an independent Office of Congressional Ethics — but the victory came at the price of significant potential limits on the office’s effectiveness.

As reform groups have complained in the past, the office will have no subpoena power, making it much harder for the panel to get to the bottom of what are likely to be controversial and complicated allegations. Nor can the office receive formal complaints from outside groups, although it can initiate investigations on its own based on newspaper reports or informal tips.

And the chances are very strong that the office will do nothing this year except — we hope — get established. The panel’s six members have to be mutually agreed upon by the Speaker and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who are beginning the process of selecting nominees.

Once selected, the panel will have to find some staff and open an office, arrangements for which have yet to be determined. And then, the legislation founding the office prohibits it from considering any cases until 120 days after enactment — that is, until July 9. And, it bars the panel from referring any cases to the House ethics committee within 60 days of an election — that is, between Sept. 5 and Nov. 4.

So, a potential window for investigation and referral will be open from July 9 to Sept. 5. Perhaps a serious matter could be addressed during the vacation and political convention month of August, but the chances are next to nil. The same can be said of the holiday months of November and December.

As a realistic matter, therefore, this is an experiment whose effectiveness will not be known for some time. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who shares the credit with Pelosi for creating the office and refining its powers to secure its approval, said: “I won’t know if this works for a year. It might fail. It might not.”

Indeed. It all depends, first, on its membership, designated to be persons of “exceptional public standing” — former Members of Congress and retired judges are the presumptive models — and then upon the seriousness and energy with which the panel undertakes its responsibilities.

In the past, the House ethics process has been an embarrassment to the institution. Newspapers were filled with reports of corruption. Lobbyists and Members got indicted and convicted. Earmark boondoggles and cases of family enrichment were exposed again and again. But the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct did nothing, then legitimately claimed it could do nothing while criminal proceedings were under way.

We hope that the Office of Congressional Ethics will get the House ahead of the embarrassment curve. And if its powers are not strong enough to make this happen, they should be made so.