Leaders working together on ethics

In sharp contrast to how ethics issues were addressed during much of the last Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been working closely with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on a bipartisan task force focused on the creation of an independent ethics commission.

The Democratic Steering Committee is making its final committee assignment selections, and shortly after that, Pelosi will release the list of who will sit on the task force, said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

The task force has a March 31 deadline to make recommendations to House Democratic and GOP leaders so members will need to be named as soon as possible in order to give them enough time to meet and discuss the sensitive nature of how such a committee could be formed and what powers it would wield.   

“We have talked about it and we’ve agreed that we would have this bipartisan task force look at whether there ought to be some outside ethics watchdog, and if so, what [it would look like],” Boehner said in an interview yesterday.

Hammill denied that assembling the bipartisan task force is a way to deflect criticism that Democrats are falling short on campaign promises to restore the ethics process in Congress by failing to immediately push an outside ethics commission and punt the issue to a later date. Outside Congressional watchdog groups have been pushing for the creation of an independent ethics group who will weigh the propriety of member activity, and Senate leaders said they would allow the issue to go through the regular committee process instead of fast-tracking it at the beginning of the session.

For years, Congress has often set up numerous bipartisan task force or blue-ribbon panels to study topics such as Social Security with little tangible legislative results.

“Coming together in a bipartisan way was the only way [former Speaker] Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan could come together on such a sensitive topic and that’s the same reason we’re doing this,” Hammill said.

Boehner acknowledged that “corruption issues” were “a factor” in the loss of the GOP majority in November, as well as the “lack of a reason to vote Republican.” But in his mind, both of those factors are secondary to the bloodshed and the lack of progress in the war in Iraq.

“I think we need to remember something: we lost, they didn’t win,” he said. 

Boehner said he’s been concerned that Congress’s ethics committees have not operated well in the recent past.

“Well, I have had great concerns about us abdicating our Constitutional responsibility. The constitution is very clear about us writing rules and holding our members accountable for adhering to those,” he said.

That being said, Boehner remarked that over the past six months he thought the ethics panel “has seemed to work reasonably well.”

The committee was non-operational for a year and half in the 109th Congress amid partisan squabbling.

“I believe the ethics committee can do its job and to do that it takes the commitment of the Democrat leader and the Republican leader to ensure that this process works,” Boehner added.

After a bruising election in which GOP corruption was a central theme, Boehner will have a difficult time wiping the slate clean. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) argues that members’ ethics are still fresh on the mind of voters and announced last week that the party committee is already aggressively targeting a handful of GOP members it argued have ethics problems including GOP Reps. Tim Murphy (Pa.), Gary Miller (Calif.), Rick Renzi (Ariz.), John Doolittle (Calif.), Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Vito Fossella (N.Y.).

According to GOP sources, after the November loss there was a brief GOP discussion that House Republicans should try to avoid having members who are under investigation by the Justice Department, such as Lewis, in prominent roles.

But Boehner said he and the GOP Steering Committee chose to keep Lewis in the No. 1 Republican slot on the powerful Appropriations panel despite the concerns.

“Our system of Justice” guarantees innocence until guilt is proven, he said.

“Just because some group out there decides they are going to accuse you of something, is not a reason to assume that someone’s guilty,” he said.

Asked what he was doing to show members that he’s serious about ethics and avoid the mistakes of previous GOP leaders, his comments were brief.

“I think the ethics committee has to work,” he said. “I also believe that I, as Republican leader need to deal forthrightly with my colleagues where there could be an issue. I have done that and will continue to do that.”