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Just Try It

After months of study and a parliamentary balk last week, House ethics reform — specifically, creation of an independent Office of Congressional Ethics — could hit the House floor this week. We hope it passes.

We don’t deny, it’s a gamble. Every time Congress creates a bipartisan, evenly divided entity to oversee a matter vital to Members, it seems either to deadlock or become subject to partisan gamesmanship. Notorious examples include the Federal Election Commission and the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

It is the consistent, embarrassing failure of the ethics committee to investigate wrongdoing — or, in 2005, even to organize itself and maintain a staff — that has led to calls for creation of an OCE, an outside entity designed to filter apparent ethical breaches and refer cases meriting further investigation and action to the ethics committee. The committee would retain responsibility to investigate referrals and decide what action to take.

One could imagine a serious, responsible OCE, composed largely of distinguished former Members or retired judges, who would act genuinely in the interest of the House in examining reported violations of law or House rules and pass them on. We’d hope that, if an OCE gets authorized by the House this week or next, Republicans and Democrats would look for the highest-quality nominees to populate the six-member panel.

Republicans oppose creation of an OCE, arguing, as House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (Ohio) spokesman put it this week, “there is no point in grafting a new bureaucratic layer onto the broken ethics process without fixing the ethics committee.”

The GOP argument on partisanship largely has been answered by “tweaks” performed by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), chairman of the task force, after OCE legislation abruptly was pulled from the House calendar last week. His amendments require that OCE members be appointed jointly by the Speaker and Minority Leader, that initiating an inquiry require approval of one Democratic and one Republican appointee, and that referral to the ethics committee would require three votes.

Republicans suggested the draconian idea of breaking partisan deadlocks in the ethics committee after 90 days by having cases automatically referred to the Justice Department — as though bringing in the executive branch were any less an abrogation of Congressional responsibility than creating an OCE appointed by House leaders.

And, as Capuano writes in Roll Call today, ethics reform might not be needed now “if Republicans had taken steps to strengthen the House ethics committee during the years when they were in the majority, during a time when several Members were caught up in controversies.”

We say, give the OCE idea a try. Approve it, and appoint smart, dedicated, experienced members to it — persons who care as much about Congress’ reputation as Members of Congress ought to.

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