Ethics task force will operate privately " for now

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who heads a task force examining whether an outside panel should investigate ethics allegations against members, said the group will begin by holding private weekly meetings rather than public hearings.

“I have found that if you really want to solve problems, it’s better to have discussions than have the typical hearings where you ask witnesses three ‘gotcha’ questions and it’s a public exercise rather than a open discussion aimed at finding solutions,” he said, noting that the task force may hold public hearings at a later date.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) late last month named eight members to the bipartisan task force — four lawmakers from each party. The group held its first organizational meeting Friday, Feb. 16, and aims to report its findings by May 1. Capuano said the deadline would be difficult to meet considering last week’s recess and the two-week-long congressional spring break in April.

The six members who attended the first task force meeting put aside normal committee rules of procedure in order to operate more informally, Capuano said. In the coming weeks, he plans to invite members of the government watchdog community in D.C., who have long advocated for an outside ethics panel, as well as prominent opponents to the idea to speak to the panel.

The policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, Meredith McGehee, is scheduled to meet with Capuano’s staff on ethics issues this week. While she’s pleased that Capuano is seeking her input, she’s concerned that he may not hold public hearings on the matter and is already worried about the task force missing its May 1 deadline.

“Simply doing this behind closed doors will partly defeat the whole purpose, which is to build public credibility about Congress,” she said. “Having public hearings will ensure that there’s an understanding among the public and the press of the various issues at play, and when the task force makes a recommendation, it will carry more weight.”

When Pelosi first announced plans for an ethics task force, the deadline to report findings was set for March 31. When she announced its members a few weeks later, the deadline was postponed to April 1.

“There’s no excuse for them not to make the April 1 deadline,” McGehee said. “You can’t punt this too far down the line or we’ll wind up having another Congress pass with a broken ethics committee.”

Capuano has yet to form an opinion as to whether he will support an outside ethics entity. He said he is “flexible” on the idea of handing over the duties of policing members’ activity to an outside group, but the panel also may decide to simply alter aspects of the existing ethics committee. 

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), a member of the task force, is a strong advocate for overhauling the current ethics system and creating an outside body to pursue complaints against members. He and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) authored a bill that would create an Office of Public Integrity in the House. Under the measure, the office would receive and investigate complaints against lawmakers but would leave the existing ethics panel as the final arbiter of whether to take action against members.

At least one GOP member of the task force, however, is dead-set against creating an outside office to investigate allegations against members. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) said most members worry that an external ethics entity would be manipulated for political purposes.

“Should we let MoveOn.org decide who to investigate?” he asked.

Citing the corruption cases against former Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and James Traficant (D-Ohio), both of whom are serving prison sentences, Tiahrt said members involved in wrongdoing are being caught.

“The system is working,” Tiahrt declared.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who is not part of the new task force, strongly disagrees, pointing to the nearly yearlong period when the ethics committee wasn’t functioning after former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) ousted Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), its independent-minded chairman who presided over three rebukes of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

“I’ve watched it over the years and right now there’s so much money involved in [the political system] that we need an outside entity to control it,” Castle said. “No member is going to step in and file the complaints against others because they don’t want to invite retaliation on their party.”

Castle also has argued for mandatory ethics training for lobbyists and a far more sophisticated ethics training process for members and staff.

The House and Senate for years have struggled with the idea of whether to create an outside body to police lawmakers. In the last 15 years, there have been several ethics task forces in both the House and Senate — but none radically have altered the ethics process.

The Senate, during debate over the ethics and lobbying overhaul passed in January, rejected for a second consecutive year a proposal to create an external Office of Public Integrity, which would have handled some of the investigative functions of the Senate ethics committee.

The lopsided vote, 71–27, sent a signal to Senate leaders who are unlikely to pursue it again this session.

The House did not include language creating an outside ethics entity in its ethics package passed in January, opting to set aside the controversial proposal and name a task force to weigh the idea and evaluate how similar external offices have worked in state legislatures and private entities.

Other Democrats on the panel include Bobby Scott (Va.) and Betty McCollum (Minn.). Besides Tiahrt, the other Republicans are Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas), the ranking member of the task force; Dave Camp (Mich.); and David Hobson (Ohio).