Monday, April 09, 2007

Freshman Democrats Push for Ethics Reform

Roll Call ($) reports on a long-overdue proposal to reform the House ethics process: taking it out of the hands of sitting Members of Congress. The proposal may not be ideal, in that it hands it over to former Members of Congress rather than an outside body, but this may be the best that the House can come up with:

Seeking to fulfill their campaign promises, Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) and several of his party’s most vulnerable freshmen quietly introduced a bill before the Easter recess to eliminate the ethics committee and replace it with an independent outside commission made up of former Members who are not lobbyists.

“During the campaign last year I talked a great deal about ethical reform in Congress because it was an issue in the campaign,” Hill said in an interview last week. “I heard a great deal from my constituents about corruption in Congress. It was my idea to come up with a better referee for ethics in Congress because sitting Members are reluctant to investigate their own.”

Ten lawmakers joined Hill as original co-sponsors, eight of whom also are members of the freshman class. They include Democratic Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Kathy Castor (Fla.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Tim Mahoney (Fla.), Jerry McNerney (Calif.), Patrick Murphy (Pa.) and Tim Walz (Minn.).

Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), a prominent Blue Dog, and Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) also sponsored the bill...

Hill’s legislation would establish a 12-member House Ethics Commission — evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — made up solely of former Members who are not lobbyists. It allows for the Democratic leader to select the GOP members, and the Republican leader to select the Democrats, none of whom would be able to serve more than three two-year terms.

The commission would be authorized with largely the same responsibilities and prerogatives the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct currently holds, except the investigations no longer would be conducted by sitting Members...

Holman countered that the pool of former Members eligible to serve on such a panel is likely to be too small, and said former Members are not the ideal because many still hold close ties to their former colleagues.

Holman noted other figures that could sit on a commission include former judges and career professionals without partisan ties, citing models used by certain states and other proposals that have been floated. “The model being proposed [by Hill] is awkward, but I’m excited that the idea is there,” he said.

The bill would pre-empt an initiative already under way by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who is heading up a bipartisan task force at the behest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to study whether Congress should establish an outside commission to vet potential ethics complaints. Originally tasked with a May 1 deadline to report back to leadership, Capuano and other members of the task force have indicated that deadline may slip into the middle of May.

Even if the House Ethics Committee dealt with allegations of impropriety in a completely impartial and just manner, it would not have the trust of the voters. That's understandable. This represents a significant improvement. Mr. Holman is quite right in noting that most former Representatives will be too close to sitting Members to be above reproach, but it's a step.

Credit goes to the House Democratic Freshmen for introducing this measure. Hopefully they will have the guts to push it forcefully. And I also hope that House Republicans take up the cause as well.

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