Dr. Congress, heal thyself

It’s becoming an increasingly familiar pattern. Congress, the first branch of government mentioned in the United States Constitution, identifies a problem under its own sanctified dome and its reaction is to beg some other branch of government to save it from, er, itself.

First it was the House of Representatives’ foolhardy decision to outsource a large chunk of its ethical self-policing function to a soon-to-be-created outside Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

Now the House has officially voted to instruct the Justice Department to investigate Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungHundreds turn out for London's first transgender equality march The Hill's Morning Report — The wall problem confronting Dems and the latest on Dorian House passes bill requiring CBP to enact safety, hygiene standards MORE’s (R-Alaska) controversial Coconut Road earmark project in Florida. Young is alleged to have written a $ 10 million earmark into a bill after the legislation had passed.

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The creation of the OCE was bad enough, but in the end it will be just another vacuous governmental layer of highly paid people pushing paperwork along to another vacuous governmental layer of highly paid people.

Although a hybrid ethics halfway house and a complete waste of taxpayer money, the OCE is not as nefarious or unconstitutional as Congress’s asking (actually, instructing) the executive branch to investigate a member of its own body.

Sure, the Young matter should be probed, but members of Congress should be the ones doing it. If they find what they consider to be felonious activity, then they can ship their evidence off to Justice. But Congress shouldn’t be automatically asking Justice to do its dirty work.

Coconut Road has been reported on extensively, and despite the bad economy I am sure that the federal prosecutors in the Public Integrity Division still buy newspapers from time to time. Justice doesn’t need the congressional equivalent of a hand-engraved invitation to investigate it — or anything else, for that matter.

Justice didn’t need an invitation to tape Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) stashing $100,000 in a parking lot over in Virginia. It didn’t need special permission from Congress to prosecute Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) after he scribbled his pathetic bribery wish list on congressional letterhead.

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The House vote raises all sorts of separation-of-powers questions.

Will those members voluntarily supply the Justice Department with documents related to earmarks? Will those same members voluntarily sit down for depositions with the FBI? And, the most troubling question of all: What in the world is the esteemed House of Representatives doing acquiescing to the Senate on an internal House matter, anyway?

Capitalizing on the episodes involving Jack Abramoff and Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a large part of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) revolutionary takeover of the House in 2006 was steeped in talk of “draining the swamp” and creating the “most ethical” Congress in history. Fair enough. I get that.

Not a bad way to take on the Republicans after years of ethical sloppiness as they morphed from the frugal, cost-cutting, open-government revolutionaries of 1994 into starring actors in “Hogs on the Hill.” So I understand why Pelosi is doing what she is doing.

But what I don’t understand is why Republicans are going along. Oops. Almost forgot. Election year.

Official floor votes notwithstanding, the reality is that most members of Congress (Republicans and Democrats) are about as interested in having Justice investigate earmarks as they are about having the OCE turn on its lights and begin its convoluted pre-ethicizing. So you would be correct if you suspect there is more than a little election-year pandering going on here.

The name of the game these days seems to be not to worry about congressional ethics, but to appear to worry about congressional ethics. Can’t risk having the fine folks back home get the idea that you don’t get it. Especially in a year where reform winds seem to be blowing and your own anti-earmarking, reform-minded presidential candidate is, no doubt, going to pay a visit to your own district sometime soon.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.