House Democrats Hold Plan for Ethics Office

By Ben Pershing Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

House Democrats abruptly pulled an ethics reform proposal from consideration yesterday after widespread opposition surfaced from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle a day before a scheduled vote on the plan.

The proposal, months in the making, would create a new Office of Congressional Ethics run by a bipartisan group of six non-lawmakers with the power to review ethics complaints against members and staff, and forward them to the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The fate of the plan is now unclear, though Democrats vowed they would revisit the issue soon.

The ethics panel has been the subject of criticism from inside and outside the Capitol for its frequent partisan feuds and light workload. House members have been wary of filing ethics complaints against each other in recent years, and the panel initiates few probes of its own.

As a result, the committee has been relatively inactive, even as numerous allegations against lawmakers have emerged and the Justice Department has launched several high-profile investigations.

Although both parties in the House agree that the ethics system should be improved, the proposal for a new outside body hit a solid wall of opposition. In announcing the decision to pull the measure yesterday afternoon, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested it would return in some form after consultations with the GOP over alternatives.

"We do expect to consider it soon, but not tomorrow," he said.

Criticism of creating a new ethics office came from all sides. Many Democrats expressed fears that the new body might lead to a sharp increase in frivolous -- and heavily publicized -- allegations against lawmakers.

Republicans, meanwhile, suggested that the ethics office would add a new layer of unaccountable bureaucracy to the existing system without addressing the root problem: the ethics panel itself. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said his party seeks "an ethics committee that works, instead of an ethics committee that looks for an excuse not to work."

The tipping point for the Democrats' proposal came during a heated House Rules Committee hearing on the measure yesterday, when Democrats including panel Chairwoman Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) joined their GOP counterparts in lambasting the plan.

The GOP's counterproposal, unveiled yesterday, would not establish an outside ethics panel. Instead, it would take the unusual step of adding four former members of Congress to the current ethics committee and give them full voting rights. Unelected members of Congress never have been allowed to serve on a standing House committee.

The Republican plan also would allow outside groups or individuals to submit complaints to the ethics committee via the House inspector general. That practice was banned in 1997 after three years of partisan warfare in the House. Currently, only members are allowed to file complaints against each other.

Democrats suggested privately that the Republican proposal was crafted for symbolic purposes only and probably would encounter significant GOP opposition. Hoyer said leaders had not seen the Republican proposal until yesterday and would consult the minority over how to proceed.

The Democrats' plan stemmed from the work of a bipartisan, six-member task force, though Republicans on the panel never endorsed the idea of an outside ethics office. Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired the task force and authored the plan that was pulled yesterday, expressed only mild disappointment over its fate.

"I'm only sorry because I thought I was done with this," Capuano said. "But this is the legislative process. It's messy."

Capuano's proposal had divided government watchdog groups. Some praised it as the best attainable deal, while others complained that it was toothless because the new ethics office would not have subpoena power.

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