Get Started

Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:16pm

Today is the day the new Office of Congressional Ethics is authorized to begin investigating alleged misdeeds by Members of the House and staff. Except Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) have yet to appoint a total of six members and two alternates to serve on the board. So 120 days after the House voted to establish this unprecedented office, it still doesn’t exist.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), as the chairman of a special task force that reviewed the ethics process and drafted recommendations, struggled for a year to come up with a method for outsiders to review Congress’ behavior, amid intense resistance from members of both parties. Perhaps he wouldn’t have taken up such a thankless task and put so much effort into it had he known that a shell of an office would sit empty through most — if not all — of 2008.

On the other hand, we knew going in that it was probably too much to expect the new body to crank up investigations and reports in the narrow window allowed by the legislation. The office was prohibited from initiating investigations before July 9 — four months after the bill passed — and within 60 days of a general election. That leaves this month and the usually dormant month of August for any investigative activity. Don’t hold your breath on that.

But we did hold out hope that a panel of esteemed former Members, jurists and other distinguished citizens at least could be selected and approved for service. We are disappointed that this hasn’t happened and urge the House leadership of both parties to get on with populating the new body.

One problem the new office, whenever it gets started, is unlikely to resolve is the seemingly routine violation of rather mundane House rules by Members and staffers alike. Roll Call reported earlier this week that staffers in the office of Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) had used e-mail to talk up, and perhaps encourage fundraising for, the Senate candidacy of former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.). At least some of this activity came from a junior staffer and does not suggest criminal intent.

But it does suggest that well-known and long-standing rules — no politicking, and certainly no fundraising from Congressional offices — might not be hard-wired into the daily lives of these offices.

The existing ethics committee can play a role in emphasizing the rules — and we would like to see each party’s leadership issue a reminder to the rank and file about what constitutes acceptable behavior in a Congressional office.

Likewise, as Roll Call continues to pore over Members’ financial disclosure reports, we continue to find omissions of basic, and essential, information. For example, does the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct check back with Members when no profits are reported on a transaction? It’s plausible that there were no profits, but it’s equally plausible that the Member simply didn’t include that information in his or her report.

Transparency in Members’ financial reports is central to the integrity of the whole ethics regime on Capitol Hill. It seems there is still a ways to go before we get there.