No later than 2 p.m. today, former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) is due at the Federal Correctional Institute in Morgantown, W.Va. There he will begin serving 30 months for his role in the corruption scandals surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney’s downfall was one of a number of scandals that played a major role in the Democrats taking control of both chambers of Congress in November as “drain the swamp” served as a Democratic campaign mantra in their attacks against a “culture of corruption” in Congress.
In January, the House and the Senate began the process of changing the way business is done in Washington, D.C., by passing landmark ethics rules reforms to prohibit lobbyists and lobbying organizations from paying for Members’ trips, gifts, meals and entertainment.
But the linchpin of ethics reform remains to be addressed: the need for a new nonpartisan, professional ethics enforcement entity to address the failure of the Congressional ethics committees to properly enforce the rules.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who skillfully led the House ethics reform success in January, and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) have created a bipartisan task force of House Members to make recommendations on how to address the ethics enforcement issue, including whether an outside panel should be established to help enforce the rules.
The task force is chaired by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who reportedly is holding a series of closed-door meetings but has not ruled out public hearings. We strongly urge Capuano and the task force to hold such hearings and involve the public in these deliberations. Also serving on the eight-person task force is Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), the House sponsor of legislation to create an Office of Public Integrity to help enforce the ethics rules. The group is due to report its recommendations to the House by May 1.
The need for a new approach to enforcing the Congressional ethics rules was dramatically demonstrated in the 109th Congress by the unprecedented failure of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, to even function for much of the session. It was further demonstrated by the fact that, according to publicly available information, the House and Senate ethics committees did not undertake any investigation in the past Congress of the extraordinary scandals involving Abramoff and his activities in connection with numerous Members of Congress.
On the day of his sentencing in October, Ney issued a statement that spoke volumes about the problems inherent in the current system: “I never acted to enrich myself or get things I shouldn’t, but over time, I allowed myself to get too comfortable with the way things have been done in Washington, D.C. for too long.”
Experience has shown that even the best ethics rules can be rendered meaningless by the failure of Congress to properly implement and enforce its rules. If the House is to prevent a recurrence of the ethics abuses that have taken place in recent years and to regain the trust of the American people, it is essential to move quickly to establish a nonpartisan, professional OPI, with the following elements:
• The OPI should be headed by a director or a panel and should have a professional, impartial staff with the resources necessary to carry out its responsibilities.
• The OPI should have the authority to receive and investigate outside complaints; to initiate and conduct investigations on its own authority, where the office determines a matter requires investigation; and to dismiss frivolous complaints expeditiously and impose sanctions for filing such complaints.
• The OPI should have the authority to refer cases to and present cases before the ethics committees in formal proceedings, based on the same standards currently used by the committees to conduct such proceedings.
• The ethics committees should continue to be responsible for determining if ethics rules have been violated and what, if any, sanctions should be imposed or recommended. A public report should be issued on the disposition of a case by the ethics committee.
• The office should receive and oversee financial disclosure, travel and other reports filed by Members and staff to ensure that reports are properly filed and to make the reports public in a timely and easily accessible manner. The office should have the same authority for lobbying reports filed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
The wave of Congressional corruption and ethics scandals — the worst in decades — is by no means over. There are ongoing criminal investigations by the Justice Department involving Members and former Members of both parties, Abramoff continues to cooperate with investigators, and the matter of $90,000 in cash found in Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) refrigerator remains unresolved.
If the new Congress fails to meet the high public expectations that exist for changing the way business is done in Washington, more unexpected career changes for incumbents may be on the way and the gavels could end up passing back across the aisle in 2008.
The House and Senate have gotten off to a good start in passing strong ethics rules reforms. It remains critically important, however, to address the fundamental need for a new ethics enforcement entity to help ensure that the new ethics rules work and to minimize the number of 2 p.m. check-ins by former Members of Congress at federal correctional facilities.
Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21 and Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.