An Office for Ethics

Monday, December 31, 2007

STRONG ETHICS rules are worthwhile only if coupled with strong ethics enforcement. That is something that has been lacking in the congressional ethics process, whose cozy structure too often combines a glacial pace with a see-no-evil mentality. The setup of lawmakers as ethical arbiters of their colleagues isn't foxes guarding the henhouse -- it's foxes guarding the foxes. So it was an achievement -- albeit slow in coming, difficult to achieve and decidedly imperfect -- when a House task force, appointed at the start of the Congress by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), announced its long-awaited proposal to create an independent office to review ethics complaints.

The proposed Office of Congressional Ethics would be headed by six board members appointed jointly by the speaker and minority leader; the idea is to name respected figures such as former judges or lawmakers who would be assisted by a professional staff. The office, which could act at the prompting of two board members, would conduct preliminary reviews of ethics matters, drop those that appear meritless and pursue those deemed significant, for a maximum of 75 days. At the end of that second review, the office would forward its findings to the official ethics committee, composed of lawmakers. They would have 45 days to consider the findings. In most cases, the office's report to the ethics committee would eventually be made public.

This would be a significant improvement over the current process, which too often seems to be a black box in which legitimate complaints of questionable behavior disappear, never to be heard of again. It is unfortunate that the Republican members of the special task force on ethics enforcement did not see fit to join the Democrats in endorsing the proposal.

The biggest question is whether the new office would have adequate power to obtain needed testimony and documents. The task force rejected proposals to give the office subpoena power, concluding that subpoenas would cause too much delay. Subpoena power isn't necessary, the task force decided, because those being investigated will feel pressure to cooperate anyway, since referrals to the ethics panel could note a lack of cooperation and recommend requests for specific subpoenas. "The threat of a subpoena is likely to compel a witness to cooperate almost as much as the subpoena itself," the report said.

That seems overly optimistic. A better approach would be to empower the office to ask the ethics committee to issue subpoenas on its behalf. If the proposal is adopted in its current form, Ms. Pelosi should commit to revisiting the subpoena issue after the first year of operation to see if the office needs more authority.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company