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July Looks Slow For Ethics Panel

Although the new Office of Congressional Ethics is permitted to begin work as early as July, it appears unlikely the independent office will undertake any investigations in coming weeks as it remains without board members, staff or even office space.

Under the resolution establishing the new office — the first major change to the House ethics process in more than a decade — it is restricted from initiating investigations for 120 days after its establishment on March 11, making its effective starting date July 9.

But neither Democratic nor Republican leadership would discuss when the new office is expected to begin work, and also declined to offer specifics about the ongoing search for potential appointees to the six-member board.

“The process is moving forward,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “We continue to talk with prospective candidates, and we will reach out to [House Minority] Leader [John] Boehner and work with him to make an announcement at the appropriate time.”

Michael Steel, spokesman for Ohio Republican Boehner, offered a similar assessment, stating: “We’re still continuing to look for candidates.”

While Members jettisoned a proposed 90-day deadline to appoint board members, the resolution still dictates that bipartisan leadership must approve each of the nominees.

Neither office would discuss whether the leaders have begun negotiations on their respective candidates — each must nominate three board members and one alternate — but Congressional ethics experts said it would be a surprise if the majority and minority agreed on the first round of nominees. Members and current lobbyists are prohibited from serving on the board, which is expected to include former lawmakers, ethics experts, retired judges or other individuals.

In addition to the nominees, a House Democratic aide acknowledged that other significant hurdles remain, including determining office space for the new body and whether it will be located on Capitol Hill or elsewhere. Although the office is expected to receive dedicated resources in the fiscal 2009 budget, funds have yet to be made available this year, and it remains unclear how much the office will receive.

Ethics watchdogs who backed the new office’s creation — which passed despite partisan bickering and over the initial objections of many Democrats — dismissed the expected delay as a matter of course.

“There’s been a little bit of a history of ‘keep on it until you get it right,’” said Sarah Dufendach, vice president of legislative affairs for Common Cause. Dufendach noted that the task force assigned to study the House ethics process spent nearly a year on the project, many months beyond its original deadline.

“I don’t know that it’ll be in the next four weeks, but I do get the idea that nobody is balking at it, that both the Speaker and Minority Leader are going to come up with names,” she added. “It always comes down to the wire. I don’t get the feeling that it’s not going to happen.”

Gary Kalman, federal legislative director for U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, was equally optimistic: “I do think there’s still time. We are at the beginning of June.”

He added: “We urge the leaders to come together and make some decisions and get the office set up as quickly as possible.”

Even if the office were to become operational in early July, however, it would have only a brief two-month window in which to initiate any investigations. In deference to concerns from lawmakers and existing rules governing the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the ethics office is prohibited from starting a new investigation within 60 days of a general or primary election. The general election this year is Nov. 4, so the deadline for new complaints would be Sept. 4.

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