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Freshmen Mulling Ethics Plan

Frustrated that the House task force assigned to review the ethics complaint process has yet to issue an official recommendation after nearly six months, freshman Democrats are mulling the introduction of their own proposal, lawmakers said.

Although House Democratic and Republican leaders established the ethics task force in February to study whether Congress should create an outside commission to review potential ethics complaints, concerns from rank-and-file Members over issues including who would serve on the commission as well as who would be allowed to file grievances have pushed the group long past its initial May 1 deadline.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), tasked to chair the group along with Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), asserted Thursday that the task force is making progress, citing a recent meeting with key lawmakers but declining to provide details. Capuano confirmed that he would not issue any recommendations before the August recess begins late next week.

“The bottom line is I’m not going to do something that’s just window dressing,” Capuano said. Among the major reforms expected in a final proposal would be a change in House rules to allow outside groups and individuals to file complaints against lawmakers, a process that has been limited solely to Members since 1997.

Nonetheless, several freshman Democratic lawmakers — many of whom campaigned on anti-corruption platforms in the fall — said they have discussed moving ahead with an independent proposal to reform the ethics process, potentially before the House begins its monthlong August recess.

“It could include a new proposal,” said one Democratic freshman who discussed the issue with other House freshmen last week and asked not to be identified.

“We’d like to have something accomplished, something tangible by the break,” said a second Democratic freshman who participated in the discussions. But the lawmaker said the details of any potential proposal remained undecided last week, and freshman Democrats planned to reconvene this week. “We do think something needs to be done.”

Many freshman lawmakers had earlier endorsed a proposal by Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) that called for abolishing the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and replacing it with an independent, bipartisan commission, but it is not clear if that legislation will be up for consideration when freshmen meet to discuss an ethics proposal.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), elected last week as president of the freshman class, characterized the recent meeting as a “pretty intense discussion” among his colleagues, but downplayed the possibility that lawmakers would introduce their own measure before the House leaves for its August recess next week.

“It’s something we want to try and get bipartisan support for,” Walz said, but he added, “It’s a priority, [but] you understand leadership has its schedule.

“When you’re new here, you believe it’s more of an event than a process,” he said of freshman lawmakers’ frustration with the pace of changes. The House and Senate also have faced obstacles moving a lobbying and ethics reform bill to conference this year, although Democratic leaders in both chambers have said it is a priority to complete that measure before the August recess.

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