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Wanted: Common Sense in Ethics Rules

Last month I asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to appoint a bipartisan working group to analyze House ethics rules and recommend fair, sensible and understandable changes to help Members faithfully comply with their obligations. I’m anxiously awaiting her response.

Three months into the 110th Congress, it’s clear House ethics rules are broken. The American people have every right to expect Members to uphold the highest ethical standards. Such standards are essential if we are to restore the bonds of trust between the American people and their elected leaders. And unless the ethics rules are fixed through a genuinely bipartisan process, they will continue to lack the credibility needed to ensure broad compliance, effective enforcement and widespread public acceptance.

The current rules, drafted in secret by Democrats at the start of the 110th Congress, are as difficult to comply with as they are to enforce. They were written without consulting either Republicans or the nonpartisan staff of the House ethics committee, and they were rammed through the House with no opportunity to carefully analyze the proposals or improve them in any way.

You can’t “clean up Congress” when good-faith efforts to comply with the rules leave everyone in confusion and disarray. The Democrats’ ill-considered approach has left Members and staff on both sides of the aisle trying to navigate a bewildering array of caveats, exceptions and gray areas that no one fully understands. And there is no shortage of examples.

Cases in point:

A Member may not take a privately funded trip if a lobbyist accompanies him or her to and from Washington, D.C., but the same Member may spend five days in Brussels discussing global warming with environmental group lobbyists — as long as none of them are on the same flights to and from the meeting.

A staffer may attend an evening reception hosted by a corporation and consume shrimp, champagne, sliced filet and canapés — but may not accept a slice of pizza or a $7 box lunch provided by the very same corporation at a policy briefing the next day.

A Member may accept $200 tickets for the Final Four from Ohio State University but not $20 tickets to a preseason game from Xavier University.

A Member may accept a $15 T-shirt or $20 hat from the Farm Bureau but not a $12 mug or mouse pad. Similarly, a $4 latte is OK — but a $4 sandwich is not.

Members and staff may participate in a $1,000-per-person charity golf tournament to benefit a local scholarship fund, but they are prohibited from helping the American Red Cross raise funds for Hurricane Katrina victims by playing in its golf tournament — solely because the Red Cross employs lobbyists.

A staffer who is invited on a “first date” by someone who happens to be a lobbyist must pay his or her full share of the lunch or dinner, as well as anything else of value, such as a movie, concert or ballgame.

A Member who has his or her own airplane is prohibited from flying it for any purpose — official, campaign or personal — even at his or her own expense.

A Member may not accept dinner from a lobbyist who uses his or her own funds or those of the firm, but the Member may accept dinner from the very same lobbyist using a credit card provided by his or her state or local government clients.

And the list goes on. Back in the early 1990s I was a member of the reform-minded “Gang of Seven” that succeeded in cleaning up the House after decades of corruption. The integrity of the institution demanded change, and as a result we brought greater accountability and transparency to the House on behalf of the American people.

But rather than deliver transparency, Democrats have cloaked Congress in a fog of contradictory and confusing new rules. Democratic leaders have left Members — Democrats and Republicans alike — more vulnerable than ever to violating rules that are hard to define and riddled with logical inconsistencies. Why is a T-shirt deemed “ethical” but a less expensive mug is not? Beats me. The fact is the rules make little sense in the real world.

The rules also are unlikely to prevent the types of abuses that properly have sparked so much public outrage. In fact, few of the violations by former GOP Reps. Duke Cunningham (Calif.) and Bob Ney (Ohio) — or alleged violations by Democratic Reps. William Jefferson (La.) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) — would have been prevented had the Democrats’ ethics rules been in effect last year.

Making matters worse, the chaos inflicted on Members and staff by Democratic rule writers now has infected the legislative process as well. Confusion over Congressional earmark rules made it possible for Democratic leaders to certify the multibillion-dollar continuing resolution as “earmark-free,” even though it contained hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks.

Republicans believe the earmark process should be more transparent and more accountable to taxpayers. In practice, the rules put in place by the Democratic leadership have made federal spending less transparent and helped Congress avoid accountability for its spending decisions.

A more ethical and accountable Congress requires clear-cut, common sense rules that are easily communicated and firmly enforced. It requires giving the ethics committee the resources it needs to function effectively and efficiently on behalf of the institution. And, as Democratic leaders argued so persuasively during the previous Congress, the process of developing such rules must be transparent and genuinely bipartisan.

The bipartisan working group I have proposed should be led by co-chairmen and evenly divided between majority and minority members, just like the Livingston-Cardin ethics task force in 1997. And its recommendations should be due no later than July 1, to allow time for the House to consider changes before the August district work period.

I’ve pledged to work with the Speaker to ensure that much-needed revisions to the Code of Conduct and other House rules are imbued with the sort of credibility that she herself has pointed out can result only from a thoroughly bipartisan effort. Our shared responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the House requires that we act, and act now.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the House Minority Leader.

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