When the Democrats took over the House last year, they promised quick action on ethics reform to prevent the kind of scandals that drove the Republicans from power. And indeed they promptly enacted restrictions on the favors lobbyists could do for members, but they deadlocked on reforming the House’s own internal policing mechanism.
Last week they voted to create an independent outside panel, the Office of Congressional Ethics, to review allegations, from both within and outside Congress, of wrongdoing, investigate the allegations and then refer the findings to the House’s own ethics panel, officially the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
The six members are to be citizens of “exceptional public standing” and are to be appointed jointly by the House speaker, currently Nancy Pelosi, and the minority leader, currently Republican John Boehner. Current members of Congress and lobbyists are ineligible to serve on the OCE.
The final vote, 229-182, shows that the measure is not universally popular, especially with Republicans, and indeed it survived a procedural vote that would have killed it by only one vote.
The biggest objections, and they are serious ones, are that the House is in effect creating a permanent grand jury to probe its affairs and that the Constitution and tradition leave the internal running of the House solely up to the members. The Senate will have no part of this office for those reasons.
But the House brought this on itself. The ethics committee was never a ball of investigatory fire, but under Republican leadership it became totally inert and was almost hopelessly tainted when the GOP leadership tried to manipulate the panel to protect then-Republican leader Tom DeLay.
While the committee sat by passively, two House members were jailed, two more were indicted, several more are under investigation and there was an embarrassing scandal involving a member and the congressional pages.
The upshot, said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., principal author of the independent panel: “The public really does not trust us on ethics issues at this point. They think we are all here protecting each other.” No fools, the public.
The OCE may be an effective body or it may not — it has no power to compel testimony. As with other attempts at ethics reform, this one will work only if the House members themselves want it to.