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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Seeing the Light on Ethics Rules for Congress

It’s about time. Late last year, a U.S. House task force recommended the creation of an “Office of Congressional Ethics.” It still hasn’t been voted on but if accepted by the whole House, it would be a giant step in the right direction.

The new office would be made up of six board members; three appointed by the speaker and three by the minority leader. They could not be registered lobbyists or sitting members of congress.

While the proposal has been criticized because outside groups and individuals would still not be allowed to file complaints, the new office would. That means finally, someone other than a member of congress would be in a position to initiate a complaint; there would still be a House Ethics Committee that could dismiss it but such action would have to be disclosed publicly.

This is very important because for a long time, congressional ethics has been one big joke. While Republicans pushed the envelope to an extraordinary degree when they were in power, the blame doesn’t rest there entirely. If you have read “Charlie Wilson’s War” or seen the movie, you might recall that then Speaker Tip O’Neill appointed Wilson to the Ethics Committee in order to ensure that no action would be taken against their mutual friend, John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who was embroiled in scandal.

The desire to have the committee do nothing had been around for a long time and became pervasive during the ’90s.

While never documented or proven, there have been stories for years that certain members would have to vow to do nothing before even being appointed to the Ethics Committee.

And, of course, there was the infamous truce whereby both Democrats and Republicans unofficially agreed that neither side would file an ethics complaint against the other.

Since it was supposed to be a self-policing entity, all of this would be rather funny if it weren’t so sad. In 2006, voters had clearly stopped laughing.

Despite the fact we were in the middle of a very controversial war in Iraq, a CNN exit poll that year found that ethics ranked as the chief concern among the electorate.

Since then, there have been changes; some window dressing, some actually meaningful. Creating this independent office would demonstrate once and for all that the House is really serious about cleaning up its act. It would also relieve members of a tremendous burden.

The House, like many political bodies, is a self preservation society. Therefore, members pick their battles very carefully and if they can avoid rocking the boat in an overly dramatic fashion, they usually will. Nothing rocks it harder than an ethics complaint and if that responsibility can be shifted to non-members, we’ll see action taken where we wouldn’t have before.

The task force making the recommendation is actually a great surprise because on the Republican side, the bipartisan committee was chaired by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), one of Tom DeLay’s most ardent defenders during the former majority leader’s recent ethics battles.

Perhaps he had an awakening. Hopefully, the majority of his congressional colleagues have too. It’s about time.

(Originally published by Examiner Newspaper Group)

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