The current congressional-reformer rage is to create an independent office that would investigate and file ethics charges. This is the “solution” to the problem of the inherent conflict of interest in members of Congress investigating their colleagues, much less members of their own party. Such an office, reformers argue, would be “above politics” and avoid that conflict.

Hmmmmm. Seems like déjà vu all over again.

Remember Watergate? In 1978, the same problem of public corruption and the inherent conflict of interest in the executive branch investigating itself led to a similar “above politics” office: the Office of the Special Prosecutor (a few years later called the Independent Counsel). The result: a constitutional monstrosity who couldn’t be hired or fired by someone voters elected (in this case, the president); and when he or she abused power, there was no political accountability. Indeed, no accountability at all.

Between 1978 and 1999, when the independent counsel statute was allowed to die with the support of both parties, 25 independent counsels spent over $175 million. In the final analysis, very few public officials were convicted of serious crimes. But dozens of innocent men and women were smeared, with ruined reputations that could not be cleared.

Let us never forget Ronald Reagan’s former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan. At the behest of Democratic congressional leaders, he was investigated three times by an independent counsel and each time no charges were brought. Finally he was prosecuted by a Democratic, partisan district attorney in the Bronx, N.Y. When he was acquitted, he was asked how he felt. He asked: “[To] which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

So when the 110th Congress begins tomorrow, it might be a better idea to limit the independent congressional office to conducting professional investigations of charges filed by members of Congress with the respective ethics committees. That would build political accountability into all parts of the process.

In all respects, the ultimate jury, the ultimate supreme court, would be the voters. Us. Not a perfect system. But better than the alternatives.