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New Ethics Plan Already Under Fire

More than six months past their deadline, leaders of a special task force established to overhaul the House ethics process remain coy about the group’s work, even as reform advocates consider attacking a forthcoming proposal as too weak.

Both Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), the task force’s chairman, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member, have remained tight-lipped about the panel’s efforts after Members rejected a preliminary proposal — which included the idea of creating a new, outside ethics body to vet complaints — in early summer, prompting the panel to return to negotiations while refusing to discuss the details, other than to acknowledge the panel is actively meeting.

“We’re getting close but we don’t have a final product quite yet,” Smith said Wednesday. Neither lawmaker would commit to an official deadline for the task force.

Despite that silence, however, some key conclusions from the task force already are clear, according to outside reform advocates tracking the process: The recommended new ethics body will not have subpoena power, and it will not accept complaints from outside groups — a proposition that raised the ire of Members earlier this year. Filing complaints has been a privilege limited to Members since 1997.

Capuano has acknowledged that he has met regularly with reform organizations, although he declined to detail the final proposal now under discussion.

Reform advocates said because of those deficiencies, and other provisions likely to be excluded from the final product, the task force is poised to offer a solution too weak to gain their support. They said it’s time for House leaders to step in and take over.

“There is no reason to believe this task force is prepared to take real steps that would effectively strengthen the ethics enforcement process,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “It’s time for the leadership to start looking for a different way of achieving that goal.”

Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center said she’s “over the task force. Whether what they come out with is good or bad, it’s still up to [Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)]. It’s really her call.”

Capuano said Wednesday that he is aware the coalition is considering issuing a letter critical of his panel’s efforts, which have long since missed the May 1 deadline set by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“I assume they’re making sure we don’t lose focus … I don’t blame them,” he said.

But the Massachusetts lawmaker demurred when asked how much pressure leaders have placed on him to complete work on the ethics plans, stating: “Nobody wants it done more than they do.”

Democratic aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have insisted that the task force has not been dismissed in the wake of ethics and lobbying reforms signed into law earlier this year.

“The task force has continued to meet and work on its proposal. The Speaker looks forward to receiving and reviewing their recommendations,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

Reform backers said while there is still time for the task force to turn its recommendations around, the likelihood of that happening is quickly diminishing.

“What is clear is that Capuano wants this off his desk, so I think he’s anxious to dump a package out there,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “It’s not going to be controversial, except for the fact that it won’t do anything.”

Most reform advocates said the lack of subpoena authority — or any real investigative power — would be the most crippling blow to the strength of the recommended new body.

“There’s got to be some sort of authority by an independent office to conduct investigations, or else almost nothing gets accomplished here,” Holman said.

Reform advocates said granting the body direct-subpoena authority would be the best option, but not the only one. One approach most said they could swallow would give the body the ability to request that the ethics committee itself issue subpoenas. Another approach: a House rules change requiring that Members of Congress and staff respond to inquiries from the body. That would mean the body could not compel the disclosure of bank records, for example, or testimony from people off Capitol Hill, but could question Congressional operatives.

Beyond failing to address their headlining concerns about investigative power and complaints from outside groups, reform advocates said Capuano’s task force appears to have weakened the proposed new body in several less significant ways. Gary Kalman of U.S. PIRG called it “death by a thousand cuts.”

Reform groups are worried the final proposal will fail to protect the new body from interference by the ethics committee, either by arbitrarily removing members or prematurely cutting off investigations.

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