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Frosh Call for Ethics Overhaul

Bill Would End Current Panel

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.

The number of freshmen backing the bill has caught the attention of outside reform groups that have long called for a major overhaul of the Congressional ethics system.

“That is the most noteworthy aspect of the bill,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “What it shows is a significant element of freshmen support a fundamental restructuring of the ethics process itself. It’s very impressive.”

Hill noted that many Members of the freshman class also ran on similar pledges and they were most receptive to legislation shaking up the current system to investigate ethical wrongdoings by sitting Members.

“I got to know these men and women pretty well,” he said. “It became obvious to me that they were concerned about ethics in Congress as well. They experienced the same thing I experienced in my own campaign, and that’s the reason why you see a lot of them on this bill.”

A spokesman for Murphy noted that he also ran on an ethics platform and had outlined the “Murphy Plan for Ethics Reform” in his successful campaign to oust former Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). His plan also included the creation of an independent bipartisan commission to investigate alleged ethics abuses.

“This is an initiative that is important to my boss,” said Murphy spokesman Adam Abrams. “These [freshmen] are the agents for change.”

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.

“No one wants to sit on the ethics committee,” Hill said, adding that former Members would be best charged with the responsibility because they have the institutional knowledge of Congress as well as the benefit of being a “step away from colleagues.”

When asked if there is a large enough pool of former Members who are not lobbyists and who are willing to sit on such a commission, Hill acknowledged that he had not conducted any thorough survey. “It’s a fair question, one that I have not fully investigated,” he conceded. “My guess is there would be an abundant pool.”

Hill said his ideal commission would include respected former Members, citing former Democratic Reps. Ron Mazzoli (Ky.) and Lee Hamilton (Ind.) as examples.

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.

The group has been meeting with outside reform advocates and Congressional experts, but Capuano has been tight-lipped about which way the task force is leaning. The panel may hold public hearings when the House returns from the Easter recess April 16.

Hill said he did not consult with leaders on the bill, but he informed them and Capuano before he dropped his legislation, noting that Capuano had no qualms with the move. “It was a campaign promise,” Hill said. “I had the details of what I wanted to do before I even won the election.”

A Democratic leadership aide said they are encouraging Members with similar proposals to meet with Capuano to discuss their ideas.

The concept of an outside ethics commission is not new on Capitol Hill, where a handful of Members and outside advocates have floated similar proposals in recent years, but there previously has been little momentum behind the idea as most Members appear reluctant to relinquish their ability to police themselves.

Capuano’s task force and the growing support among freshman lawmakers have encouraged advocates of significant ethics reform. “I do believe there is still that kind of reluctance to do it,” Hill said. “But there is also the realization that this is hard to do and maybe we need to change it.”

The number of high-profile Congressional scandals in recent years has increased the urgency of the need for significant reform, Holman said, but he acknowledged that if Democrats do not act in the 110th Congress the chances of overhauling the system likely will drop. He said he is encouraged by Pelosi and the freshman class, who so far appear “very serious” about ethics reform.

“If we don’t get some fundamental restructuring this year it’s likely to fall off,” Holman said. “The time is ripening. If Congress had its druthers it would not change anything in the ethics process, but Democrats won in large part on the ethics issues and if they don’t deliver on their promises, control of Congress is going to be up in the air again in the next set of elections.”

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