Opinion-Editorial

Time to Pass an Ethics Reform Bill With an Independent Board

By Rep. Mike Capuano

Originally published in Roll Call
March 5, 2008

The House is in the midst of a debate on whether to establish an independent Office of Congressional Ethics to review complaints against Members. No current Member of Congress would be eligible to sit on the OCE Board, representing a significant departure from the way these matters currently are handled; this would break the appearance of an "old boy network" forever. Such an entity will significantly increase transparency, restore confidence in the reputation of the House and represent the most dramatic progress in years in the drive to strengthen ethics enforcement in the House.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked me to chair a bipartisan task force to study the issue of ethics enforcement and craft a proposal that would address perceived shortcomings in the current system. After a year of deliberation, we issued a report calling for the establishment of an independent body. I understand that many may have basic philosophical concerns over creating an independent entity. I respectfully disagree and am convinced that the House must act.

The proposed OCE first would conduct a preliminary review of any matter it believed needed scrutiny. Any issue subject to additional analysis would be referred to the ethics committee with a call for further study and resolution. Specific time frames are mandated for each stage in this process and in most cases, the ethics committee is required to issue a public statement at the conclusion of a review. There are a number of criticisms that have been leveled at the current process. The most common complaint is that it is virtually impossible to determine if in fact a matter is under review by the House ethics committee. The transparency inherent in the OCE would lift the veil of secrecy and illustrate that the House takes all questions of impropriety seriously.

Last week, many Members raised concerns about aspects of the proposal, and work has been done to try to address some of those concerns. The chief issue raised involves the possibility of partisanship marring the effectiveness of the new body and a proliferation of partisan investigations.

To address those concerns, the proposal will be amended in several key areas. Instead of allowing the Speaker or the Minority Leader to act alone in appointing a member of the OCE if agreement cannot be reached in 90 days, the proposal will be amended to require joint appointments without any time limit.

Instead of initiating an inquiry at the request of any two board members, the proposal will be amended to require that the review be bipartisan — one member must be an appointee of the Speaker and the other an appointee of the Minority Leader. To further guard against partisan "witch hunts," the proposal will be amended to require that a review advances only if three members vote to move forward. Effectively, two jointly appointed members must convince a third jointly appointed member that further review is required.

Taken together, I believe that these three changes make it impossible to initiate a partisan "witch hunt" and impossible to use partisan stonewalling to thwart a reasonable review once it has begun. This revised proposal is supported by nationally respected, independent nonpartisan groups like Common Cause and U.S. PIRG.

Some have argued that we simply should strengthen the existing House ethics committee. Indeed, the day before a scheduled House vote on the establishment of the OCE, Congressional Republicans released a proposal to do just that. Their alternative measure contains some troubling provisions. For example, their proposal would require the House ethics committee to refer any matter unresolved due to partisan gridlock to the FBI and the Department of Justice. The proposal does not distinguish between a minor allegation and one of great significance, such as accepting a million-dollar bribe. Furthermore, even a violation of the rules of the House would be referred to the Department of Justice, despite their clear lack of jurisdiction over our internal rules.

Regardless of the flaws that I believe exist in the Republican proposal, it is too late to just make cosmetic changes to the current system. If Republicans had taken steps to strengthen the House ethics committee during the years they were in the majority, during a time when several Members were caught up in controversies, it may have been sufficient. However, years of inaction require a stronger response. The people who elected us to represent their interests deserve nothing less. It is time to bring independency and transparency to the ethics enforcement process.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) is the chairman of the Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement.

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Contact: Alison M. Mills (617) 621-6208