Leaders Sifting Names For New Ethics Panel

Posted March 21, 2008 at 4:42pm

House leaders are canvassing reform experts and academics in search of potential appointees for the six-member Office of Congressional Ethics, which Members approved amid raucous partisan bickering just before the spring recess.

Though no names appear to have been settled on, some reformers who participated in the ethics overhaul said they had been contacted by Democratic aides searching for candidates.

“It’s not at a level where they say what do you think about X” candidate, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer who participated in designing the new board, the first independent entity to be involved in the oft-criticized Congressional ethics process. “The sense that I got is that they certainly want to move as expeditiously as they can.”

Even if House leaders can rapidly agree on appropriate candidates for the six-member office, experts said it was unlikely the office would do much between now and next year because of election-year realities and the way the measure creating the office was written. Plus, the board must hire staff and do mundane things like get an office.

“Only the naive would have expected that there would be any chance of a fully functional, active body for much of this Congress,” Ornstein said.

“I think if the board got appointed this year and they got up and running, that’d be pretty good,” commented Sarah Dufendach, the vice president of legislative affairs for Common Cause, who consulted with the ethics task force headed by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) that recommended the office’s creation.

If there is “a good faith effort here to get this thing up and running with good, solid people, I’d be thrilled.”

Picks for the fledgling office cannot include current lawmakers or lobbyists. But several reformers pointed to former Members, and some academics, as natural candidates for the controversial slots.

“It’s the [ex-Rep.] Lee Hamiltons [D-Ind.] and the [ex-Sen.] George Mitchells [D-Maine] and the [ex-Sen.] Sam Nunns [D-Ga.] of the world who are the sort of prototypes,” said Gary Kalman, federal legislative director for U.S. Public Interest Research Groups.

“Those would be the sort of gold standard of the type of person you would want to serve,” Kalman added.

Reached on Friday, Hamilton, who since his retirement from Congress has taken on weighty positions like co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, said he had not been contacted about the position and didn’t know much about the new office.

“I’m not going to try to answer that. I just don’t know at this point,” Hamilton said when asked whether he would be willing to serve on the board.

On the Republican side, names like ex-Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.), the former chairman of the House ethics panel who was pushed out by GOP leaders in the squabble over investigating former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have been floated.

Hefley, 72, has been keeping an extremely low profile since he retired from the House in 2006; he and his wife now live on a ranch in Oklahoma. He could not be reached on Friday.

But one senior Republican aide nixed the name immediately, illustrating the pitfalls in picking ex-Members.

“If it’s true that Hefley’s being considered, it could only be by the Democrats,” the aide scoffed. “Only the Democrats consider Joel Hefley ethical.”

Dufendach suggested that former Members may still be too close to the process to adequately judge their ex-colleagues. She said nonpartisan former judges would make better picks.

“If they appoint the right kind of people, who are judgely, who are not political animals, this could actually become a buffer between them and people who do seek to use the ethics process for political purposes,” Dufendach commented. “If they put political operatives on it, they could conceivably have a problem.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) must agree on candidates for the six-member office.

Reluctantly, Boehner consented to look for candidates after objecting to Democrats’ procedural maneuvers during votes on the rules change, when he warned that finding enough consensus candidates would be a “stretch.”

“Obviously we’re at the beginning of the process, but Mr. Boehner will work expeditiously to appoint members to the panel,” spokesman Kevin Smith said.

Asked about potential candidates, Smith joked: “I understand Eliot Spitzer is available, but maybe the Speaker will call on him first.”

Members chucked the idea of a 90-day deadline to appoint members to the office. But the strictures of election year politics, and the way the resolution was written, make significant action by the new body this year unlikely, experts said.

According to the resolution creating the office — which was enacted as a change to House rules — no new investigations can be started by the ethics office until at least 120 days after enactment on March 11. That means the earliest the panel could start real work would be July 9, 2008.

But, because of concerns from lawmakers and existing rules governing the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, no new investigation could begin within 60 days of a federal or primary election. The general election this year is Nov. 4, so the deadline for new complaints would be Sept. 4.

Thus, the expectation on and off the Hill is that the board may not be truly functional until the beginning of the 111th Congress.

“We’re not going to see some dramatic set of actions, and it’s possible we won’t see much of anything this year,” Ornstein said.

Nonetheless, he predicted, “Even if there’s a fairly brief window here, chances are there are going to be a number of cases to consider.”

Once members of the office have been appointed, they will have to hire staff and establish a budget. Money for the office would be sought under the appropriations process, though that is not expected to be an obstacle to getting it up and running.

Though they won’t have subpoena power, the board members could start ethics investigations and make recommendations about whether to take a matter to the House ethics panel. Outside groups would still be barred from making formal complaints, however, and the board would likely draw its material from media reports and tips.

Other possible candidates for drafting include ex-GOP Reps. Jim Leach (Iowa), Mickey Edwards (Okla.) and Bill Frenzel (Minn.). Democratic possibilities include ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and ex-Reps. David Skaggs (Colo.) and Abner Mikva (Ill.).

Academics and outside experts being mentioned include Michael Malbin from the Campaign Finance Institute; the University of Virginia’s Jim Ceasar; Harvard professor Dennis Thompson; Anthony Corrado of Colby College; ex-Federal Election Commission counsel and former head of the Center for Responsive Politics Larry Noble; and ex-Federal Election Commission Chairman Scott Thomas.

Other names include ex-Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill.), a former independent presidential candidate, and Judge Anthony Wilhoit, who heads the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.