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House Creates New Panel On Ethics

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The House last night approved one of the most significant changes to its ethics rules in decades, creating for the first time an independent panel empowered to initiate investigations of alleged misconduct by members of the chamber.

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The six members of the new Office of Congressional Ethics would have the authority to initiate preliminary reviews of allegations against House members, conduct investigations and refer their findings to the House ethics committee along with a public report.

"For the first time in history, you have nonmembers able to initiate investigations," said Sarah Dufendach, chief lobbyist for the watchdog group Common Cause. "They're doing oversight. They're the new police."

The final vote, 229 to 182, belied the measure's controversy in the House; 159 Republicans and 23 Democrats opposed it. Even with two House members under indictment, two others sent to prison, and several others under federal investigation, nearly half the House did not want to submit the body to the scrutiny of a panel not under its control.

"If you have a single ounce of self-preservation, you'll vote no," implored Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) last night.

A parliamentary maneuver before the final vote was defeated by a single vote, and only after Democratic leaders held the vote open an extra 16 minutes to twist enough arms to secure passage.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) leaned hard on his fellow Congressional Black Caucus members, persuading Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Sanford B. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) and Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) -- to switch their votes.

Republicans angrily accused Democrats of defying their new ethics rules, which prohibit the holding open of votes for the purpose only of changing the outcome.

House Democratic leaders faced severe difficulty even in bringing the measure to a vote -- from Republicans and fellow Democrats.

Until the moment of last night's vote, the panel's proposal absorbed bipartisan attacks from members who were concerned that an outside panel would reopen the ethics wars that plagued the House in the 1990s. Similar proposals have been shot down twice in the Senate, by overwhelming bipartisan votes.

"Ladies and gentleman, we have a new grand jury in the House," thundered Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). "Any referral to the Office of Congressional Ethics will be tantamount to a guilty verdict. Any other conclusion by the ethics committee will be seen as a cover-up. I guarantee it."

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wore down opponents, first with changes to the original proposal, then by scheduling last night's public vote and essentially daring members to reject it.


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