Ethics Reform: A Change For the Worse

Rebecca Hagelin

3/27/2008 12:01:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

Americans don’t trust Congress. Gone are the days when 84 percent of the public approved of the job Congress was doing (in October 2001, to be exact). The latest polls show an approval rating of 21 percent. So when the House of Representatives created a new ethics panel recently, it probably struck many people as a step in the right direction.

At least until you take a closer look at this panel and how it’s supposed to work.

Start with the fact that the House already has an Ethics Committee. The new Office of Congressional Ethics is a separate entity. Ah, its advocates say, that’s the point: It’s an outside, independent panel. No need to worry about partisan politics undermining necessary ethics investigations.

Leave it to the brilliant and courageous Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to pull back the curtain on this bogus “reform.” In a March 17 column for, she blasted the liberal leadership that supported the fraud and explained why she opposed the legislation:

“Their package would allow lobbyists, 527s, and others to raise a cloud of suspicion over any elected member of Congress without any supporting facts, without any corroborating evidence and without any accountability to the people or the venerated institutions of our democracy.”

Even the main supporter of the new panel, Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., seems to have his doubts. “I won’t know if this works for a year, and it might not,” he recently said. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have tried reforming the existing committee first?

That’s what we need outsiders for, panel advocates claim. As Sarah Dufendach, a lobbyist for Common Cause, told The Washington Post: “For the first time in history, you have non-members able to initiate investigations. They’re the new police.” That irritates members on both sides of the aisle.

“We have a new grand jury in the House,” Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said. “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.

This echoes a criticism Rep. Bachmann levels at the liberal leadership: “Their ‘ethics’ package flies in the face of every tenet of responsible justice. Their ‘ethics’ package lowers the standard of wrong-doing to the mere appearance of impropriety. Their ‘ethics’ package keeps real non-partisan ethics attorneys and investigators from being able to do their jobs.

Abercrombie flatly rejected the notion that the panel will elevate the process of investigating ethics violations. “This is an invitation to ideological mischief and character assassination,” he said. “We cringe before our critics and turn over our obligations to govern ourselves to others.”

Another noteworthy feature of the new panel is that it lacks subpoena power. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. -- who, the Post points out, fought for tougher ethics rules when Republicans controlled Congress -- thinks that ethics investigations could, ironically, become harder to pursue if they’re handled by a body without subpoena powers. It would have forward investigations to … the House Ethics Committee. So what’s changed, really?

Rep. Capuano claims that the panel “brings a level of independence to the process because no current members of Congress can serve on the panel.” But who’s going to follow up on that process, and complete those investigations? Current members of Congress, that’s who. They’re just adding more steps to the same old process.

Worse, though, is the way the panel works.

It’s overseen by six board members -- private citizens who are appointed by congressional leaders. Three are appointed by Democrats; three by Republicans. Guess how many “yes” votes it takes to initiate an investigation? Two. Whatever happened to majority rule, which our system of government is founded on, for Pete’s sake? Now guess how many “yes” votes it takes to move a proposed investigation forward. Three. So investigations can still carry a partisan taint, if all three members of one party decide to gang up and push through a case against a member or members from the other party.

A better solution would be to make the current committee more transparent and responsive. A Republican counterproposal would have required the committee to refer all matters not resolved within 90 days to the FBI and the Justice Department. “Let’s be clear,” House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said. “If there is wrongdoing, the ethics committee should do its job ... or get out of the way for law enforcement.

Fortunately, it looks as if the Senate has no intention of creating its own version of the new panel. Ethics Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, released a statement after the House vote: “The Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject proposals to create an outside investigative body because we have confidence in our ethics process.

Sorry, Congress. Doesn’t look like that approval rating will be rising any time soon.