Will a new House ethics panel work?

Reform doesn't come easy in the House, where both Republicans and Democrats have objected to a new independent body created to investigate ethical violations by lawmakers.


Vincent Rossmeier
March 13, 2008 12:52AM (UTC)

Tuesday night, the House authorized the creation of an independent panel to oversee and investigate allegations of ethical wrongdoing by its members. According to the resolution, the panel will be composed of six "individuals of exceptional public standing." Lobbyists, current members of Congress and federal employees will all be ineligible to serve in the new Office of Congressional Ethics.

The change follows a wave of scandals in recent years involving House members. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the measure "will -- for the first time -- open the ethics process up to the participation of our fellow citizens, which will make this institution more accountable to the American people." Jonathan Weisman, writing for the Washington Post, called the panel "one of the most significant changes to its ethics rules in decades."

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But the panel may not get off the ground anytime soon. The six members of the committee will include three members appointed by the House speaker and three chosen by the minority leader, but the two leaders then have to agree on all six. A New York Times article on the decision stated that John A. Boehner, the Republican minority leader, "was unsure how he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi would find agreement on the panel membership." Tuesday, Boehner also said, "I can't imagine anyone in their right mind would want to serve on this outside panel because of the fighting that's going to occur, not by members but by partisan groups on both sides who are going to want to file frivolous complaints."

An e-mail sent by Boehner today suggests that he's still in no mood to compromise. Boehner is alleging that Pelosi violated House rules when she held Tuesday's vote on the resolution open in order to persuade reluctant Democrats to vote for the measure.

Far be it for us to be skeptical, but there seem to be other impediments to true ethics reform as well. Though the panel will be able to perform investigations and commence reviews of purported misconduct by House members, the panel will not have subpoena power. It will also have to refer its conclusions to the House Ethics Committee. Additionally, both a Democratic member and a Republican member of the committee must jointly agree to start an investigation before an ethics review can take place.

And if the acrimonious debate surrounding the vote is any indication of things to come, many House members are not going to take kindly to having outsiders probe into their affairs. The resolution passed by a vote of 229 to 182, but not before representatives from both sides of the aisle expressed profound resistance to the measure. One hundred ninety-six Democrats and 33 Republicans supported the panel, while 159 Republicans and 23 Democrats voted against the changes.

Todd Tiahrt, a Republican from Kansas, said of the vote, "If you have a single ounce of self-preservation, you will vote 'no.'" And as Paul Kiel at Talking Points Memo highlights, some Democrats were just as opposed to the panel as Republicans. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, declared, "With this proposal we are indicting ourselves, yielding and retreating to those who would tear this House down and denigrate us as crooks and knaves and hustlers ... We cringe before our critics ... If we have no respect for ourselves -- how [do] we expect it from anybody else?"


Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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