Democrats Lose Traction on Reforms

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

Keeping momentum on ethics reforms is proving tough for House Democratic leaders, who are struggling to sell lawmakers on a proposal for overhauling House ethics enforcement, which is part of the party's pledge to improve accountability in Congress.

A week that began with the indictment of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) on bribery and racketeering charges ended on Friday with failure to forge Democratic consensus on plans for an independent ethics overseer, despite a sense of urgency among party leaders, lawmakers involved said.

As envisioned, the independent, bipartisan ethics panel would, for the first time in a decade, give non-lawmakers an avenue for lodging ethics complaints against lawmakers. The new panel would have no subpoena power and would leave enforcement action with the current committee. Even so, unveiling of the new committee has been repeatedly delayed, as proponents work to quell dissension.

"It's within reach. Whether that means we're going to be able to do it, I don't know," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), chairman of the task force set up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to look into revamping ethics enforcement. While he hopes to announce the task force's recommendations early this week, "I don't like deadlines [or] the inference that we're reacting to any particular case," meaning Jefferson's, he said.

Another Democratic lawmaker involved agreed: "This has its own dynamic that has less to do with Jefferson and much more to do with the caucus." Lawmakers even on the task force remain divided, with their views ranging from stricter enforcement to no change at all. "Every member brings a different concern," Capuano said.

An independent ethics panel would be a third prong in Democrats' effort to open the House to greater scrutiny, in the aftermath of scandals involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In January, the House enacted rules restricting gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists, and requiring members who sponsor pet spending projects to identify themselves and certify that they have no financial interest in the earmark.

Last month, the House passed legislation expanding disclosure of lawmakers' dealings with lobbyists, to be reconciled with a Senate version and sent to the president before the July 4 recess. As those discussions begin, some lawmakers from the House and Senate continue to oppose a provision requiring that lobbyists who solicit and deliver bundles of campaign checks to lawmakers disclose their activity.

The Democrats' third target was to overhaul House ethics enforcement. The internal House ethics committee, say reform-minded members and congressional watchdogs, is too opaque and conflicted to be an effective overseer. It keeps investigations secret until they conclude, and though the panel's 10 members can initiate probes on their own, only lawmakers can request an investigation. They seldom do: Over the past decade, the committee has opened only three investigations at a lawmaker's request, according to House leadership aides, though over the same period more than a dozen lawmakers have been indicted or targeted in law enforcement probes.

"There is a real need to get an effective and publicly credible system for enforcing the ethics rules," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the governmental watchdog group Democracy 21. "Right now, you have a non-credible ethics enforcement process that has failed overwhelmingly to do its job."

Last week, Democratic leaders pitched their proposal for the new ethics body in contentious meetings with freshman lawmakers and the full caucus. According to several people who attended, half the panel -- whose size is still under discussion -- would be appointed by the speaker and half by the Republican leader. Possible candidates could include, but would not be limited to, former lawmakers, judges or members of law enforcement. Lobbyists would be banned.

The panel would vet complaints and refer them to the existing ethics committee, with a recommendation on which allegations should be pursued, but its recommendations would be nonbinding.

"The legitimate danger people raise is that this becomes used for political purposes rather than what it's intended for," said a Democratic lawmaker involved. "We've got to find a mechanism for addressing those concerns."

One such mechanism under discussion would require the individual or group lodging a complaint to disclose background information, including funding sources, that would shed light on any political affiliations.

Task force member Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), long a champion of stricter ethics rules, remains undecided on the plan. Before any new enforcement process takes effect, he said, "Members should have the right to get a binding opinion on whether something is a violation of ethics laws or not." Lawmakers of both parties have complained that the House rules enacted in January are confusing.

Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.) a freshman who called for better ethics monitoring during his campaign, is also dissatisfied. Hill, Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) and 25 other freshman Democrats recently called on Capuano to "address the structural flaws that underlie the current ethics enforcement process," and establish an entity with investigative powers. Hill favors a 12-member, bipartisan panel made up of former lawmakers who would submit their findings to the full House, which would then vote on disciplinary action.

Republicans have tried to capitalize on delays in implementing Democrats' ethics measures but have not taken an official stand on the new panel.

"There's a bipartisan group of members continuing their conversations about whether there should be an outside ethics task force, what powers it could or could not have, and what that process looks like," Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week. "Until those conversations come to some end or some fruition, I think I'm going to reserve comment."

Democrats hope to reach consensus soon. "There's a renewed spirit to do something," one aide said. "Now we have to finish things up."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company