Editorial: Make It Clear

Posted July 7, 2009 at 4:13pm

The House ethics committee needs to quickly resolve suspicions that it’s trying to undercut the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics in the new rules package that it has just adopted.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), chairwoman and ranking member on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, are scheduled to meet Thursday with watchdog groups and Congressional reformers over the issue.

It would be a perfect time for the ethics committee leadership to issue a statement clarifying that it will take a full vote of the 10-member committee — and not just a two-leader decision — to halt a probe by the OCE.

It’s no secret that creation of the OCE was controversial among Members and that there have been tensions between it and the ethics committee.

The OCE was established out of a sense that the House ethics panel failed to investigate all the scandals of the Abramoff era and that its even split between the parties — five Democrats, five Republicans — ensured deadlock and prevented committee-initiated investigations.

After months of cogitation and negotiation by a task force appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and headed by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the OCE came up for a vote in March 2008.

It very nearly failed on a procedural vote that House leaders held open for 31 minutes while they twisted arms to get it approved.

The six-member OCE, composed largely of former Members, has shown a willingness — as the committee has not — to accept complaints from outside groups, check them out and, if merited, pass them on with a report to the ethics committee for further action.

The OCE has a first-rate membership, including former Reps. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), David Skaggs (D-Colo.), Yvonne Braithwaite Burke (D-Calif.), Karan English (D-Ariz.), Abner Mikva (D-Ill.) and Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.).

We’re encouraged that, under Lofgren and Bonner, the ethics committee is now functioning — as witness, its decision to investigate the suspicious connections between fundraising by the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group and earmarks secured for PMA clients by powerful appropriators.

But last month the ethics committee came up with new rules for itself that could well be interpreted as undercutting the OCE.

The rules defined “investigation— to include not just formal establishment of an investigative subcommittee but a mere decision by the chairman and ranking member to launch an inquiry.

The resolution creating the OCE stipulated that the ethics panel could halt an OCE inquiry upon notice that it was conducting an “investigation.—

So, watchdog groups feared that, under the new rules, the chairman and ranking member could deep-six an OCE probe.

All this can be cleared up Thursday with assurance from Lofgren and Bonner that it will take a full committee vote and formal establishment of an investigative subcommittee to stop an OCE investigation.

If that doesn’t happen, there’s good reason to be more than suspicious.