Office of Congressional ethics would be a critical improvement

Common Cause supports as a critical improvement the House Ethics Task Force’s proposal released today to create an independent Office of Congressional Ethics to enforce House ethics rules and monitor conduct of Members.

“For too long there has been no accountability in the US House,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause. “The Office of Congressional Ethics would be an important improvement over the current system that seems to address wrongdoing by looking the other way. This would put a cop back on the beat.”

The proposal would establish a six-member independent board to initiate ethics complaints, an act now limited to only Members of Congress.

While some have said the board must have subpoena power to be effective, Common Cause disagrees. If the panel was unable to gain access to needed witnesses or documents, it would indicate in its report that the Ethics Committee should issue a subpoena. That report would eventually become public, and the press and public would know whether the Ethics Committee in fact issued the subpoena or not.

“Common Cause will watch this closely, see how it works and advocate for more reform if needed,” Edgar said. “But this trumps the current discredited ethics process any day.”

The proposal safeguards against partisan witch hunts feared by many House Members by stating that members of the independent panel be appointed jointly by the Speaker and Minority Leader. To prohibit one member of the board with an agenda from filing a complaint, the proposal also requires approval of at least two board members to initiate a complaint. An extra measure has also been included to guard against politically motivated complaints. There is a preliminary board investigation period after which a vote is taken as to whether or not the complaint has sufficient merit to warrant further investigation.

The board would have a staff of its own, protected from firings by Members of Congress. Board members themselves could only be removed by joint agreement of the Speaker and Minority Leader and even then, only for cause.

After it’s investigation, and on a date certain, the board would be required to issue a report to the Ethics Committee including the complaint, what House rules or laws were allegedly broken, the board’s actions, findings of fact, and supplementary materials, as well as its recommendation that the complaint be either dismissed or further investigated by the Committee.

Under this proposal, complaints could no longer languish uninvestigated for months or even years. After an initial investigation, and on a date certain, the Ethics Committee would either dismiss a complaint, or decide to investigate further. In both cases, the Committee determination would be made public. In the event of a tie vote, or if the Committee failed to take any action, the independent board’s report, findings and recommendation to the Committee would be made public.

Common Cause commends Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) for leading the task force. On behalf of its 350,000 members and supporters, Common Cause urges all House Members to support the proposal when it is voted on the House floor.