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NIH, Senate Overreact on Ethics, But House Keeps on Dissembling

This is a column about ethics — but not just those of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). A host of ethics issues have arisen recently, and all need attention.

Not all of these issues, it should be emphasized, demand more stringent rules or enforcement. Ethics reform is not, and should not be, a one-way street. Often, we go too far in erecting rules and carrying out enforcement, and sometimes we need to adjust back to avoid unintended consequences, and even real injustices.[IMGCAP(1)]

The prime example of the latter concerns the National Institutes of Health. Recently, news stories have surfaced about a handful of NIH researchers who appeared to have abused the NIH procedures governing outside income, consultancies and other activities. Some of these stories suggested that abuses were rampant.

But NIH officials overreacted. Even after it became clear that there were no widespread abuses, they implemented new ethics rules that have effectively banned any outside activities by NIH employees.

In the name of ethics — and, no doubt, to prevent explosions on Capitol Hill and preempt continuing press coverage — the NIH, one of America’s crown jewels, has shot itself in the foot. The new rules are draconian, confusing and unfair. And we are seeing an immediate impact: Top-flight scientists are leaving or actively seeking alternative employment, and impressive recruits are having second thoughts about coming to NIH.

In the future, I will address the larger context of which NIH is now a part: the administration’s apparent effort to downgrade basic research, a policy that one of my colleagues, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), has labeled “insane.” But for now, let’s just say that it is time to rethink the rethinking of NIH ethics rules.

If we are going to attract and keep good scientists and world-class researchers at NIH, we have to be flexible with outside consulting arrangements. If we are going to keep our scientists on the cutting edge, we need to let them go to professional meetings, present papers and interact with peers. If we are going to have the best research product and process, we should cut them some slack as they communicate with and interact with health-related companies.

Second, a few words on Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). There were very good reasons why Congress enacted a ban on outside employment for lawmakers, including continuing arrangements with law firms, medical practices or other professional partnerships. Serving in the House and Senate is a full-time job. And there have been instances in which Members of Congress have abused or exploited their part-time partnerships for personal gain, or have become walking conflicts of interest.

Having said that, Coburn has a point. It can add to the quality of legislative service for a lawmaker to see patients and experience first-hand the exigencies of the health care system. Having ongoing ties to other parts of the real world may not take us to the ideal of citizen-legislators — an impossibility in the 21st century with its punishing legislative demands — but it is an asset.

So, finding some way to allow Coburn to have a modest continuing involvement in medicine — something strictly limited and not involving any financial gain — is a goal worth pursuing. It may be impossible to draw this line without opening the door to abuses, but it is worth a try.

Now, on to the House. This House has become a first-class, all-out national embarrassment on ethics issues. The rules changes implemented at the beginning of the session stunk to high heaven. The House took an already weak ethics process and made it utterly toothless.

The leaders who drew up and rammed through the changes were disingenuous about their motives and what they did. These changes were all DeLay-related. No matter what the leadership says, Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) was fired because he did not cover up the ethics charges against DeLay, and Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) was ousted because he led the subcommittee that recommended the three rebukes to the Majority Leader.

The change that permitted one party to block any further investigation was obvious in its motive. If there was any doubt, it was surely erased by the removal from the committee of three members who had not been pliant on the DeLay matter — Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) being the third — and the insertion of two members who had contributed generously to DeLay’s defense fund.

Today, when the ethics committee meets, it should adopt the proposal made by ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) to erase the rules changes. If there is to be any ethics committee, and any ethics process at all, that is a prerequisite. The Democrats are absolutely right in their resolve to keep the committee from organizing until there are reasonable rules in place.

Frankly, I hope we can go further, beginning an effort to revamp the ethics process more broadly. It is clearly time to have an outside panel of former Members and staffers who can act as the screening group, taking in all complaints and allegations and deciding which should trigger a full investigation by the Congressional panel. Unless that happens, the ethics process in the House will continue to be a laughingstock.

As for DeLay, the effort by House Republicans and their outside allies to suggest that this is a partisan and ideological attack, that there is nothing illegal here, that everybody does it, is foolish.

Has everybody in the House been rebuked unanimously four times by an ethics committee that did virtually nothing for a decade against any other Members? If other Members misused government resources for political objectives, as DeLay did in the Texas redistricting case, let’s hear about them. If other Members besides DeLay and his fellow rebukee Candice Miller badgered and threatened a colleague inappropriately to change a vote on the House floor, let’s hear about them.

If other Members had relatives on their campaign payrolls to the tune of $500,000 over four years, by all means publicize it and hold them fully accountable. If others took lavish trips with Jack Abramoff or other lobbyists and reported that their financing had come from a nonprofit think tank — when in fact the money had simply been laundered through that think tank — let’s get the details.

On this one, though, let us make a distinction between those who took one such trip, and those who took them repeatedly and followed the trips with legislative actions that favored the lobbyists’ clients. And if other Members threatened trade associations or lobbying groups with consequences if the groups did not hire partisans for top jobs, let’s get chapter and verse on them.

It has been disheartening, frankly, to see major House Republicans, including rising stars like Eric Cantor (Va.), get out front defending the indefensible and falling back on the “everybody does it” and “it wasn’t technically illegal” arguments. We need ethics adjustments in many places and in many ways; if House Republicans don’t do a gut check, voters may decide that other adjustments are in order.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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