At the start of the 110th Congress, House Democrats instituted a number of rules changes intended to address ethics concerns. At that time, Speaker Pelosi bragged about the achievement:
"House Democrats got straight to work this week by passing the toughest Congressional ethics reform in history. We have broken the link between lobbyists and legislation: banning gifts and travel from lobbyists and organizations that retain or employ them, banning travel on corporate jets, shutting down the K Street project, subjecting all earmarks to the full light of day, and reinstating the strict rules of pay-as-you-go budgeting.
"But these reforms are just our first steps. In the coming months, we will propose legislation to close the revolving door between government officials and lobbying firms and shine a light on lobbyists’ efforts to influence legislation. We will also require a bipartisan task force to report out recommendations on the creation of an outside entity to uphold the highest ethical standards here in the House.
Since then Democrats have bent or broken the rules on pay-go, seen a tremendous increase in the amount of travel paid for by lobbyists, and have more closely linked fundraising and political payoffs. And there's also the matter of the bipartisan task force -- which has yet to report any recommendations.
Roll Call reports today that you shouldn't get your hopes up:
More than six months past their deadline, leaders of a special task force established to overhaul the House ethics process remain coy about the group’s work, even as reform advocates consider attacking a forthcoming proposal as too weak.
Both Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the task force’s chairman, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member, have remained tight-lipped about the panel’s efforts after Members rejected a preliminary proposal — which included the idea of creating a new, outside ethics body to vet complaints — in early summer, prompting the panel to return to negotiations while refusing to discuss the details, other than to acknowledge the panel is actively meeting...
Despite that silence, however, some key conclusions from the task force already are clear, according to outside reform advocates tracking the process: The recommended new ethics body will not have subpoena power, and it will not accept complaints from outside groups — a proposition that raised the ire of Members earlier this year. Filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997...
Democratic aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have insisted that the task force has not been dismissed in the wake of ethics and lobbying reforms signed into law earlier this year.
“The task force has continued to meet and work on its proposal. The Speaker looks forward to receiving and reviewing their recommendations,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.
Reform backers said while there is still time for the task force to turn its recommendations around, the likelihood of that happening is quickly diminishing.
“What is clear is that Capuano wants this off his desk, so I think he’s anxious to dump a package out there,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “It’s not going to be controversial, except for the fact that it won’t do anything.”
When Democrats fail to act, it creates an opportunity for Republicans. This is the sort of reform issue that House Republicans ought to seize on.
Voters will be skeptical of any ethics reform enacted by Members of Congress, for Members of Congress. But an independent review panel -- with subpoena authority, and which can accept ethics complaints from outsiders -- might actually get public respect.
I hope that a reform-minded Member of the House Republican conference takes up this cause. We can use every good issue we can get for 2008.