Former Members Headed to Ethics Panel

Leaders Yet to Announce Names, but an Attorney, Ex-State Legislator on List

Posted July 18, 2008 at 6:05pm

Former lawmakers are expected to make up at least a third of the new Office of Congressional Ethics, which remains dormant more than a week after it was permitted to begin work as House leaders continue to negotiate over would-be board members.

According to a source familiar with the nomination process, former House Members will occupy at least two of the six seats on the OCE board.

The source, who asked not to be identified citing the sensitive nature of the discussions, declined to identify the nominees or their political affiliations.

Other finalists expected to be named by bipartisan House leadership include at least one attorney and a former state legislator.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she has met “a number of times” with Republican leaders, and that Democrats have submitted their nominees, who include three board members and one alternate.

“I would hope soon to be able to announce the names of those whom we have suggested,” Pelosi said.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Republicans have likewise submitted their selections to Democrats, but he added: “We’re working to finalize our arrangements with one individual on our list before they are made public.”

Both Democratic and Republican leadership offices have repeatedly declined to provide the names of potential nominees since deliberations began several months ago.

Legislation establishing the new office, which is tasked with reviewing complaints and recommending investigations to the full House ethics committee, prohibits current Members and lobbyists from serving on the board, but not former lawmakers.

Government reform groups and Congressional scholars split over the merits of allowing former lawmakers to participate on the board.

Advocates including Norman Ornstein, a Roll Call contributing writer and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who participated in designing the new board, assert that ex-Members can provide necessary insight into how Congress functions but at the same time are more removed from the day-to-day politics of the House.

“You’ve got to have people who know the nature of the legislative process,” Ornstein said.

“That doesn’t mean any former Member will do,” he added, acknowledging that former Members could still be swayed by partisan allegiances or friendships. “There’s some former Members who have the kind of integrity that you can be quite confident that they will follow the facts where they take them.”

But Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, who notes he did not endorse the legislation creating the ethics office, argues that many former Members may associate with current lawmakers, making them too close to judge their former peers.

“The appointment of former Members to this commission really keeps it more of an inside baseball ethics watchdog as opposed to an outside watchdog, which was really the intent and purpose,” Holman said.

He added, however: “Whoever the particular individuals are, it does make a big difference.”

Holman cited as example of acceptable ex-Members, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has also served as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, and former Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), former House ethics chairman who investigated then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Under the OCE’s guidelines, board members will be appointed to serve a term of two Congresses and may not serve more than two consecutive terms or eight years.

In addition, four of the initial nominees will be designated to serve only through the duration of the 110th Congress and must be reappointed to a full term in 2009 to continue serving on the board.

According to a report issued by a special task force assigned to study the ethics process — and that authored the legislation establishing the OCE — the board members are expected to serve part time, along with a full-time staff of aides.

“The Task Force expects that board members will be professional and responsible men and women who, though working part-time on a per-diem basis, will account for their duties in a conscientious manner,” the report states.

Board members will not be House employees, but they will be paid a per diem based on the Office of Personnel Management’s General Schedule level GS-15. In 2008, the basic rate of annual pay for a GS-15 employee is $95,390, or $45.71 per hour. OCE board members will also be reimbursed for travel, lodging and meals related to their official duties.

Nonetheless, board members will be required to file annual financial disclosures detailing their assets, as House lawmakers and senior staff are currently required to do.

“It would really make a mockery of this office if they didn’t allow or did not require disclosure of potential conflicts of interest,” Holman said.

Both board members and OCE aides will also be required to sign a formal declaration stating they will not seek an elected House or Senate seat for at least three years after their tenure with the office ends.