A test of ethics for Congress

The House won't police itself. That's why it needs an independent panel to investigate claims of wrongdoing.

Twice in the past two weeks, a majority of US House Members – Democrats and Republicans alike – have balked at efforts to hold a vote on a critical proposal to create a bipartisan panel of nonlawmakers to monitor enforcement of House ethics rules.

As members consider taking it up again this week, we know they are worried about what might happen if the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) is created. But they should be more worried about what might happen if it isn't.

For decades, Congress has used a peer review system to police itself. Each chamber of Congress has an ethics committee, and that panel is charged with monitoring and enforcing the rules. But in a political environment, where favors and loyalties are traded for power and legislative accomplishments, self-policing simply does not work. House Members, in particular, essentially refuse to do it.

Consider that in the past five years, which have seen some of the worst congressional scandals in recent history – two House Members jailed on bribery charges, two under indictment for corruption, at least two under FBI investigation, plus former lobbyist Jack Abramoff – the House Ethics Committee has remained silent and virtually inactive.

When the Democrats took control of the House in 2006, propelled in part by that same wave of scandal that entrapped mostly Republicans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California pledged to lead a more ethical House. To her credit, members passed a major ethics bill last year that contained some of the most sweeping reforms since Watergate.

But what it did not do is address enforcement of the rules. Rep. Michael Capuano (D) of Massachusetts has proposed creating the OCE, an independent and impartial panel of six outside experts chosen by House members of both parties to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and monitor compliance of House rules. The panel would improve oversight of the ethics rules by eliminating the absolute secrecy surrounding the existing process and strike an appropriate balance between the privacy concerns of those facing allegations and the ability of the public to be informed about the actions of their representatives. It would also provide for much-needed independence in a process that has been plagued by overt conflicts of interest.

Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 largely because they did not address the widespread scandals washing over the House of Representatives and their party.

Voters in 2006 cited political corruption as a top concern in voting, even more than the war in Iraq or terrorism, according to a number of Election Day polls. What's more, Karl Rove, President Bush's former deputy chief of staff, reportedly confirmed this assessment in a message he delivered at a closed-door meeting of 2008 Republican House candidates last summer.

There is little question that the Democrats won seats in the House by campaigning on restoring accountability in the Capitol and cleaning up the "culture of corruption" engulfing the House.

In this election year, voters will be looking to see what has been done to make good on those election promises. Passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 was a good start. But people also understand that all the good rules and laws in the world won't change behavior if they are not accompanied by strong enforcement measures.

With the spotlight shining now on the proposed OCE, voters will know if their representatives sidestep this important reform. And that is something members of Congress should worry about.

Bob Edgar is president of Common Cause, which advocates honest, open, and accountable government.

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