Experts brainstorm cleaning up Washington with an independent ethics commission

WASHINGTON, DC – The still-unfolding congressional scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff has prompted Democrats and Republicans to unveil a number of reform proposals aimed at curbing the pay-to-play culture that is flourishing in Washington.

But since Congress has proven over and over in the last decade – most notably in the last year – that it cannot police itself like it is supposed to, Common Cause believes any new reforms will be ignored without strong and credible enforcement of the rules. For that reason, Congress must create an independent ethics commission, insulated from partisan manipulation, to investigate complaints and recommend sanctions.

Common Cause convened a panel of experts on legislative ethics at the federal and state levels Monday to discuss how such a panel might work. More than 30 states have ethics commissions with varying degrees of independence and with jurisdiction over state legislatures.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “New rules and new prohibitions around lobbying and ethics won’t mean anything without credible enforcement. A number of states have already created independent ethics commissions because of the inherent problems of peer review for elected officials. Washington should follow their lead.”

The panel, entitled Restoring Ethics in Washington: How Congress Can Create an Independent Ethics Commission, included the following:

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar and congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute

Stanley Brand, founding partner, Brand Law Group; former general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives

Dennis Thompson, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; founding director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics

Bonnie J. Williams, executive director, State of Florida Commission on Ethics

The Hon. Anthony M. Wilhoit, executive director, Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission

Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause