Ethics Watch

Oh how we forget the headlines of yesterday. Hardly three months back Americans were immersed in the drama of the House ethics committee. What penalty would it assess on Speaker Newt Gingrich? How many members wanted off that third rail of committee assignments?

Then a tidal wave of White House ethics questions washed over headline land. Not surprisingly, a bipartisan House task force appointed to recommend changes in ethics investigation and discipline procedures toiled in obscurity.

Now its members have announced their recommendations. We think they're sensible - even if they probably won't end all Capitol Hill ethics controversies forever.

Reps. David Dreier (R) of California and Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana have put forward a resolution to create a civilian fire brigade to take some of the heat off the members of the ethics committee (formally, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct). Here's how it would work:

At the start of each new Congress, the Speaker and the minority leader would jointly appoint a pool of 20 independent fact finders. These private citizens could include former members of Congress and staff aides, as well as the usual blue-ribbon civilian appointees. Then, whenever a "high profile," complex case is brought to the ethics committee, the committee members would be entitled to select four to six fact finders from the pool to investigate allegations, gather evidence, and report findings and recommendations to the ethics panel.

The virtues of this system are: (1) Both the 20-person outsider pool and the four-to-six-member fact-finding team chosen for each case would be even numbered and chosen jointly by the GOP and Democratic leadership, thus preserving bipartisan fairness. But (2) as unelected civilians they would be more free of partisan loyalty demands and presumably more objective in pursuit of the facts. (3) The full ethics committee would still retain ultimate control of its constitutional responsibility for enforcing standards.

Potential stumbling blocks would be: (1) The outside civilians, especially former House members and staffers, might not sufficiently shed their partisan habits. (2) Once a fact finders recommendation is turned over to the committee, partisan wrangling of the type that inflamed the Gingrich case might escalate.

That said, the Dreier-Hamilton approach seems likely to be a distinct improvement on the current collision-prone approach. It will simply be important for the Speaker and minority leader to remember when they appoint the independent "pool" that they are providing a heat shield for their colleagues on the ethics committee. Therefore, they will have to take care to select truly independent outsiders. Otherwise they will risk making the heat shield a new source of heat.

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