Dreier shifts on ethics oversight

A 1997 proposal to use private citizens as independent investigators for the House ethics committee, introduced by Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), bears a striking similarity to the ethics revamp unveiled yesterday by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — but Dreier is no longer supporting the idea.

Dreier and then-Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) submitted their ethics reform plan to the bipartisan task force that reorganized the ethics committee in the aftermath of its tumultuous inquiries into Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Dreier and Hamilton, who shared House authority over a bicameral congressional reform committee in 1993, candidly admitted the “conflicts inherent in a completely self-disciplining system,” as Dreier then described the ethics committee’s pitfalls.

But Dreier has since renounced his endorsement of using outsiders to assist in ethics inquiries, despite Obama’s call yesterday for a nine-member Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission that tracks with Dreier’s old plan. Dreier is leading the House leadership’s effort to tighten lobbying and ethics disclosure rules, though the planned rollout of his reform bill has been postponed in recent days.

Dreier spokeswoman Jo Maney pointed out that the 1997 bipartisan task force, also called Livingston-Cardin, opted not to include Dreier’s outside ethics panel in its recommendations.

“Over the last decade, he has continued to have discussions on it, and most recently constitutional questions have been raised about outsiders looking at the ethics process,” Maney said.

Maney reiterated that Dreier is open to considering any ethics reform proposal if enough House Republicans support it.

The Constitution charges the House and Senate with writing and enforcing their own rules, meaning that members could object to private citizens — even if they were former lawmakers or judges, as Obama has suggested — sitting in judgment of congressional conduct.

But Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, two congressional scholars closely consulted by Dreier and Hamilton in the 1990s, agreed that outside ethics investigators would pose little or no constitutional threat.

“As long as the proposal is structured so the ultimate decision regarding actions taken by the House or Congress [against] members is retained by members themselves … I don’t think there’s any constitutional problem with that at all,” Mann said. Both the 1997 Dreier plan and yesterday’s Obama bill would preserve the disciplinary decision-making power of sitting members of the ethics committee, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Ornstein, a vocal proponent of the Obama commission, went even further, rapping Dreier for abandoning his advocacy of ethics reform.

“I find it puzzling and disappointing that he’s backing off” from an independent affiliate for the ethics committee, Ornstein said. “Is he reflecting an unease felt by [Speaker Dennis] Hastert [R-Ill.] and others in leadership? It could be that. There’s no good explanation for me otherwise.”

The key difference between Dreier’s previous proposal and Obama’s recent offering is the latter’s insistence that the Ethics Committee must employ outside investigators to compile data, call witnesses and report findings to committee members. Dreier and Hamilton would have left the decision on whether to use outsiders up to a committee vote.

“This is not an inconsequential detail. It’s a very important detail,” one senior congressional aide said.

Still, Dreier told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week that he did not endorse bringing in private-sector investigators of any kind. “I’m not enthused about going the route of outsiders,” Dreier said.

Later in 1997 Dreier and Hamilton’s ethics reform co-sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), installed as chairman of the ethics chairman at the beginning of this Congress after Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who was denied a waiver to extend his tenure after arousing many Republicans’ anger for his rebukes of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

In 1997, Dreier and Hastings lacked the twin powers of committee gavels and the majority, however, and their ethics changes failed to survive the bipartisan scrutiny of the Livingston-Cardin task force. Mann wondered why Dreier did not persist in his support for outside ethics investigators.

“Do you know how many times campaign-finance reform failed before final passage in 2002? Many times,” Mann said.

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