Review of Ethics Setup Is Unlikely

Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:26pm

Despite apparent tensions in the House’s two-tiered ethics process — notably, recent spats between the ethics committee and an outside review office — House officials and ethics observers say a formal evaluation of the system is unlikely anytime soon.

In recent weeks, both the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is officially known, and the Office of Congressional Ethics have feuded publicly over process issues — from how to calculate deadlines to the interpretation of House rules — suggesting friction in the reformed ethics process lawmakers approved less than two years ago.

But there are no indications the House will initiate an “ongoing review— proposed by an ethics task force in late 2007, at the same time the task force unveiled its proposal to establish a semi-autonomous ethics review board, now known as the OCE.

At that time, Democrats on the eight-member task force, co-chaired by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), proposed a “panel of Members— to review the implementation of the OCE, as well as the ethics committee itself and House ethics rules.

“In light of the evolving nature of the ethics process this historic session, it would be prudent to oversee implementation of all new rules and procedures with the goal of making further recommendations, if necessary, to ensure that the reforms intended are, in fact, achieved,— the task force wrote in a December 2007 report.

Although the task force Republicans did not endorse the group’s report, citing concerns over the proposed OCE, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the group’s co-chairman, said Thursday that he nonetheless supports a long-term review.

“I think it would be a good idea to review how things are working,— Smith said. “I think a task force should actually look at how both organizations are operating and evaluate how we think the entire ethics system is working.—

Republican leaders, however, are not expected to pursue such a review, according to a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said: “We will consider appointing such a panel to review the process at the appropriate time, but the OCE has been operational for less than a year.—

Government reform advocates, who have closely monitored the implementation of the House’s new ethics process, said last week that any review should wait until the OCE has operated for a full cycle.

“One really has to get through a Congress to see how all of this plays out,— Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said.

“There’s a much more immediate concern, as far as I am concerned … and that is ensuring that the Office of Congressional Ethics is not weakened, undermined or eliminated as a result of efforts by people who opposed the task force in the first place to try and get rid of it,— added Wertheimer, who along with other government reform groups has praised the OCE’s efforts to date.

Although the 2007 report called for an ongoing ethics review in the 110th Congress — in part to review stricter lobbying and gift rules enacted in September 2007 — House leaders did not appoint the OCE’s board until July 2008, and the office did not begin investigating potential rules violations until January 2009.

The OCE is tasked with referring investigations to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.