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.
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.
"We are willing to take a chance on something that we might have written differently," she said last night, "but something that can strive to remove the doubt in the minds of the American people about the integrity of this body."
Senate ethics committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) released a statement last night making clear that they have no intention of following the House's lead.
"The Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject proposals to create an outside investigative body because we have confidence in our Ethics process," Boxer and Cornyn said.
The House's Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has been all but moribund since an ethics war drove then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) from power in 1989, then nearly toppled then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) eight years later.
In 2006, the committee investigated allegations that House Republican leaders had for years failed to respond to clues that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had inappropriate contact with House pages. But beyond a damning report, the panel did not hold anyone accountable.
Former representatives Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), went to prison. The former majority leader, Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), was chased from the House under indictment. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was indicted. The FBI raided the home and business of Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) -- but the public has seen little action in the ethics committee.
The ethic panel did announce it would investigate a land deal that has led to charges against Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), but only after the Justice Department indicted the lawmaker.
The new panel will work something like a grand jury, investigating allegations and forwarding only matters of merit to the ethics committee. Its architects envision the appointment of retired judges and lawyers with a strong background in jurisprudence and a stature that would remove partisanship from the panel's work.
Three members will be named by the House speaker, and the other three would be selected by the minority leader.
But the panel will be weaker than some watchdog groups had hoped. An ethics review can be started only if a Democratic appointee and a Republican appointee agree to do so.
The new ethics office will have a staff but lacks subpoena power.
After 30 days or five legislative days, whichever is longer, three panel members would have to approve a deeper investigation. That investigation would have to be concluded in 45 days or five legislative days, whichever is longer, before the matter is sent to the ethics committee, along with a finding of fact and a recommendation of dismissal or further inquiry.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who fought for tougher ethics rules when Republicans controlled Congress, said the new panel may actually weaken ethics enforcement, if the ethics committee cedes its investigative duties to a body without subpoena powers. Even Capuano said the panel could be as susceptible to gridlock as the ethics committee has been, if appointees fall prey to partisanship and refuse to investigate lawmakers from their party.
"I won't know if this works for a year, and it might not," he said.
But on balance, watchdog groups hailed the vote as a landmark.
"The bottom line is, it is a major improvement in the system," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21. "It addresses the single biggest problem with the ethics committee: Things go to the committee and disappear into a black hole."