Obama bill goes furthest to refom ethics and lobbying

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) today introduced legislation that would create an Office of Public Integrity to include an independent ethics enforcement commission that would govern the behavior of lobbyists and Members of Congress and staff. “We believe that this legislation would do more to reform ethics and lobbying than any other piece of legislation introduced thus far because it goes to the heart of the problem: enforcement,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.

Better rules for privately funded Congressional travel and lobbyist disclosure are sorely needed, but unless Congress fundamentally reforms the ineffective ethics process any new rules will mean little. Much of what has come to light as a result of the Jack Abramoff investigation violated existing Congressional rules. It is largely because of a shameful lack of enforcement of these rules that this scandal now consumes Congress.

By creating an independent ethics enforcement commission within the Office of Public Integrity, Congress would simply be mirroring systems that exist in many state legislatures around the country. Just this week, the Tennessee state legislature agreed to create an independent ethics commission in response to corruption scandals, joining more than 30 states that have recognized the effectiveness and public credibility of independent oversight.

One virtue of an independent body is that Members of Congress would not be forced to investigate their colleagues, a practice that they have been loathe to do, and is rife with conflict. Oversight by a panel of distinguished, unbiased citizens, such as retired judges or former Members of Congress, would help restore public confidence in Congress’ ability to effectively enforce its own rules. The commission could accept complaints from any U.S. citizen and conduct investigations based on the merits of the complaint, not politics.

“We recognize how difficult it will be for Members of Congress to accept oversight from an independent agency and applaud Senator Obama’s courageous leadership in introducing this legislation,” Pingree said. “It is our firm belief that, like many state legislatures around the country, Congress will come to appreciate and value an independent ethics enforcement commission and the unbiased oversight it offers.”

Common Cause will engage its 300,000 members and supporters in an effort to reach out to Members of Congress from both parties to make this bill a truly bipartisan legislative proposal.