Two Weeks Until Start Date, Ethics Board Awaits Picks

Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:54pm

The new Office of Congressional Ethics is authorized to initiate investigations beginning two weeks from today, but House leaders have yet to announce a slate of board members, and many potential nominees said Tuesday that they have not been contacted by House officials.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) praised the office’s creation Tuesday, but he gave no indication about when nominees would be finalized.

“We established an ethics office,” Hoyer said at his weekly press conference.

Michael Steel, spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said: “We’re continuing to talk to folks, trying to find the very best candidates we can.”

Under the resolution that established the new office and marked the first major change to the House ethics process in more than a decade, the body is restricted from initiating investigations for 120 days, making its effective start date July 9.

But many of the individuals viewed as likely candidates by Democratic and Republican observers said Tuesday that they had not been contacted about the OCE board.

Former Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a lecturer at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and director of the Aspen Institute’s Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership, said they had not been called.

Hamilton, who has also served as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, said he did not know enough about the new office to determine whether he would be interested in the post.

Similarly, ex-Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said in a telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma: “I haven’t been asked.”

The former House ethics chairman, who was pushed out of his chairmanship by fellow GOP leaders in a dispute over investigating then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said he would consider taking one of the six board positions if it was offered to him.

“I suppose I would if I was asked,” Hefley said. “It’s not something I would ever pursue or try to attain.”

The Speaker and Minority Leader each must nominate three members and an alternate, as well as approve each other’s picks.

“That is the toughest job I had in Congress,” Hefley said of the ethics panel. “But I did it because I thought it was very important to the institution.”

“It’s a hard job and a thankless job in many ways. I probably made more enemies than friends,” Hefley said. “It’d be a little different if you’re no longer a Member of Congress and they’re doing it independently. You wouldn’t have to work with those same people everyday who hated you.”

Ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said he has not been contacted, but he added that he would not accept the position if it was offered to him.

“I simply don’t have the time to do it,” said Kerrey, who is president of New School University in New York. “It sounds to me like it’s something that will take a fair amount.”

“I think it’s a very good idea,” he added. “I think establishing something that has independence … can only increase citizens’ confidence” in Congress.

Among the non-Congressional prospects, neither University of Virginia professor Jim Ceasar nor Anthony Wilhoit, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, said they had been contacted about the board.

“Nobody has ever approached me about that. It would be interesting,” Wilhoit said of a potential post. He did, however, meet with the task force that studied and ultimately drafted the legislation establishing the new ethics office, as well as with Senators who had examined creating a similar body.

Some former House lawmakers who could be contenders for the board declined to comment on whether they have been contacted, including ex-Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), now the director of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics, and David Skaggs (D-Colo.), executive director of Colorado’s Department of Higher Education.

Other potential nominees including ex-Reps. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) and Abner Mikva (D-Ill.), and ex-Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) did not return telephone messages Tuesday. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who has been suggested as a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Norm Ornstein, a Roll Call contributing writer and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who participated in designing the new board, said that despite the dearth of confirmed nominees, the selection process could be further along than it appears.

“There’s also a possibility here, that until they make these choices public, some of these people have been contacted and just won’t admit it,” Ornstein said. “I want to give them a little bit of benefit of the doubt. … You probably don’t want to have any indication of individuals being contacted until you’ve got everybody lined up.”