Congress outsources itself

The Bush administration announces that a foreign company will operate major American ports and an outraged Congress goes absolutely berserk.

The Air Force snubs American-based Boeing Corporation and awards a multibillion-dollar tanker contract to a consortium that includes the maker of the European Airbus and the same outraged Congress calls for immediate hearings.

The House of Representatives decides to outsource its internal ethics process to a non-elected, outside group and the only question seems to be how many members should be appointed and how much they should be remunerated for their trouble.


But now, apparently having become more keenly aware of the broader issues involved, there are signs that the sleeping Congress may be waking from its slumber.

House Democratic leaders, for the third consecutive week, are desperately trying to concoct the magical legislative elixir that will allow them to cobble together just enough votes to officially reformulate and restructure the House ethics committee, all in fulfillment of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) 2006 campaign promise to “drain the swamp” and fix the “broken” ethics process in the People’s House.

The last three weeks have been rough going for Team Pelosi.

After a near-rebellion in her very own Rules Committee, Pelosi is being forced, on the fly, to tweak the bill, which at its untweakable center creates a new, independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

The OCE is designed to kick the House ethics process up a notch by playing a key, some say unconstitutional, investigative and referral role by being a clearinghouse for complaints, before deciding to send them — or not — to the already-in-place ethics committee.


This extra layer of non-member outsiders, presumably, would be immune to whatever lethargic disease currently afflicts members of the ethics panel whenever they venture down to the committee’s workspace, which is buried deep in the bowels of the Capitol building.

Just down the hall from where thousands of American flags that have been flown over the Capitol wait before delivery to grateful constituents, the ethics committee has befuddled critics for not pursuing any number of investigations.

To be sure, being assigned to the House ethics committee is a thankless duty, and given the choice, most members of Congress would rather crawl blindfolded to the top of the dome, fly, fold, and personally deliver those flags to every last constituent before having to pull ethics duty.

Let’s face it, no one in his right mind wants to sit in a room and pass judgment on a colleague’s behavior, unless, of course, it is after work and margaritas are involved.

Sitting in judgment on whether another member of Congress is fit to serve is not exactly the reason why members run for Congress in the first place. And ethics is not the “A” committee that new members lobby their leaders to get on during orientation while they’re still trying to locate the restrooms and the hidden elevators that can take them to their prestigious digs on the fifth floor of the Cannon Building.

So looking for some “outsiders” to carry the load, on first glance, seems like a reasonable way to dump off the dirty work on others. But in the end, there is no guarantee that the actual work will actually be done any better, or quicker. And there is that little “constitutional” matter that defenders say is settled since the OCE would do no “adjudication,” just referrals.

During last week’s Rules Committee meeting, when Pelosi’s own chairwoman openly challenged the OCE plan, House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) lamented that the proposed panel “simply adds a new layer of bureaucracy between the existing ethics committee and federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI that exist to fight corruption at the highest levels.”

Perhaps the tersest comment regarding the idea of an outside panel came from former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) in a letter he sent last year to the Ethics Reform Task Force, chaired by Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass).

A former ethics committee member during the Abscam years and co-chairman of the Committee to Revise the Rules of Procedure on Ethics in the mid-’90s, Livingston wrote, “All outside panels will inevitably be composed of human beings who have not experienced the pressures of becoming elected to or maintaining high office … Sooner or later, an investigatory panel will engage in witch-hunts that will virtually destroy the integrity of the House of Representatives.”

Livingston’s concerns are perhaps why one of the latest “tweaks” includes having some “former members” be part of the OCE.

If the House shortsightedly proceeds, and ultimately creates the OCE, and Livingston’s name pops up on the short list, Pelosi and BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE might save themselves some postage.

Jim Mills can be reached at