Note to Members: Don’t Backpedal on Ethics Reform

Posted May 5, 2008 at 4:16pm

After a slew of ethics scandals helped cost Republicans their majority in 2006, the House has taken two commendable steps.

First, the chamber passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which tightened some of the looser rules of conduct. Second, and more significantly, it created the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to consider possible rule and ethics violations, and to improve enforcement. Both are reasonable packages that target some of the most egregious violations by Members and staff.

Given that progress, it was disheartening to read in Roll Call on April 30 that despite the reform the House has passed and the commitment to ethical government that House leaders have expressed, the ethics “truce” apparently still exists.

The truce is an unspoken agreement between House Members of both parties that they will not file ethics complaints against each other out of fear of retaliation.

According to the article — “Ethics Complaints Sheathed” — both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) have recently called for an investigation into apparent tampering with legislation after it passed the House and Senate. But neither leader has formally filed a complaint to trigger an investigation. The message that sends to Members is the truce still lives.

The truce mentality argues for the Office of Congressional Ethics to be established quickly. It cannot happen fast enough. Quality, independent people need to be found to fill the six slots on the panel, and staff need to be hired so the panel can do its job. In the meantime, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct should immediately begin an investigation into how a $10 million earmark mysteriously appeared in an appropriations bill after the House and Senate approved legislation that did not include it.

Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) alleged dalliance with legislation after Congressional passage, if true, has profound implications in terms of precedent, if not substance. That legislation could be changed after its passage without Congressional approval or knowledge is startling and scary. Yet, like before, Congress is happy to let the Justice Department investigate, even when this poses obvious constitutional problems, as only the ethics committee can investigate violations of the rules governing its internal workings.

Behind the ethics truce has always been the implicit understanding that ethics complaints are more about politics than process. It is the elevation of partisanship above the reputation of the institution. We have been down this road before, and we know where it leads.

The Office of Congressional Ethics may be more inclined to launch investigations than the ethics committee has been, but only if the leadership appoints people who feel obligated to protect the institution rather than carrying the water of one party or the other. If party leadership can appoint objective individuals, the independent panel can protect Members from frivolous, politically motivated complaints. If leaders appoint party hacks, Members will be at their mercy.

There is a cynicism in our country about what happens in Washington that can be traced to the kind of scandals we saw with Jack Abramoff in 2005 and 2006.

In recent years, the complete inactivity of the House ethics committee has contributed to the crisis of confidence in the Congressional ethics process. Hopefully, with the creation of the OCE, the House will finally make enforcement of its own rules a professional endeavor, rather than a political one. And maybe, by depoliticizing the ethics process, the OCE will help ratchet down the overall level of partisanship.

If anything shows that the House truly needs to complete its work and establish the Office of Congressional Ethics, it is, as Roll Call reported, allegations that the truce still exists and that something as unimaginable as tampering with legislation passed by the House and Senate will go uninvestigated by the House.

Bob Edgar is the president and CEO of Common Cause.