Ethics Delays

Posted June 29, 2007 at 3:42pm

We’re now a quarter of the way through the 110th Congress, but one of the major promises made by both Democrats and Republicans — to enact ethics and lobbying reform — has yet to be fulfilled.

The House did move swiftly to adopt new rules banning Members and staff from accepting gifts, travel and meals from lobbyists — except in a campaign fundraising context, of course. The Senate followed suit with a bill containing similar restrictions. And the House has passed a lobbying reform bill, too, requiring — among other things — more frequent reporting of lobbyists’ activities and expenditures.

But that bill is not law because neither chamber has appointed conferees to work out differences — a Senate effort to do so was tripped up late last week. And a House task force working on new rules for processing ethics complaints has yet to report.

The task force report is hung up primarily over the proposal to create an independent Office of Public Integrity that would screen ethics complaints against Members and another proposal to require outside groups filing complaints to disclose their donor lists.

In principle, we favor allowing “outsiders” to file complaints and the creation of an OPI to screen them and we oppose the disclosure requirement. During the 1990s, after an “ethics war” in which ideologically motivated groups flooded the ethics committee with complaints, the House restricted complaint power to Members.

There ensued a long “ethics truce” in which few complaints were filed — and no wrongdoing was investigated — even though the newspapers and airwaves were filled with reports of misdeeds. The entire Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, for instance, was never the subject of investigation by the House ethics committee.

The new proposal is an effort to allow outside complaints — and to create an independent body to filter them, passing on meritorious cases to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for further investigation and action. The OPI would consist of retired judges and non-lobbyist former Members to be nominated by each party.

Advocates of requiring outside groups to disclose their donors claim it will prevent or expose purely partisan complaints. But the OPI will exist to filter out frivolous charges — and to judge complaints on their merits. Charges of wrongdoing should not be dismissed just because they come from political activists. And activist groups should not have to choose between filing complaints and protecting their privacy and funding sources.

Several watchdog groups have complained that the OPI won’t have subpoena power and that cases it refers to the ethics committee can be buried. We’d hope the OPI at least could make a statement that it was referring a case to the ethics committee so the public would know that a charge was being taken seriously.

Both the House and Senate need to get busy completing work on lobbying and ethics reform when Congress returns. These used to be top priorities, after all.