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A New Chance for Ethics in the House

By Marie Cocco

WASHINGTON -- Elections do matter. Some people who win office really do keep campaign promises. And legislation the public wants -- but which the politicians, by and large, don't -- actually can be enacted, even if the kicking and screaming can practically be heard coming from behind those infamously closed doors.

This is what the House of Representatives has proved by at last creating an outside panel to hear complaints of ethical wrongdoing by its members.

To understand how significant is the establishment of a six-member, bipartisan committee of outside experts to review and recommend action on ethics complaints against House members, consider this: Even as Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., was being investigated and then indicted on 35 counts that include federal charges of embezzling, conspiracy, money laundering and other crimes that involve using his House office to enrich himself and bankroll a campaign, there was until recently no inquiry by the House Ethics Committee. The limp panel of insiders has thus far been the sole arbiter of whether a member of the people's house had violated the people's trust by bringing "discredit" to the House.

The idea that lawmakers, and only lawmakers, can police themselves reached its hypocritical apex during the Tom DeLay imbroglio, when Republicans then in control of the chamber actually ousted one of their own -- Joel Hefley -- from the ethics panel's chairmanship. His sin? Trying to take the widespread reports of DeLay's ethical shortcomings seriously. Since then, the curious matter of Florida Republican Mark Foley's computer-based dalliances with congressional pages came to light, as has the money-in-the-freezer fiasco of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who at least is the subject of a current ethics panel inquiry even as he battles federal charges against him.

Word of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's successful struggle -- and it was a struggle -- to push through a new rule requiring the outside panel of ethical arbiters was buried under a torrent of campaign news and the bitter exchange of accusation over the House's refusal to go along with giving blanket immunity to telecommunications companies who were involved in the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program. Nonetheless, its significance is political and substantive.

Political, because ethics reform was a central Democratic campaign pledge in the 2006 elections; the rallying cry against the Republican "culture of corruption" helped the party win control of the chamber. Once in power, however, Pelosi's call for an outside ethics panel faced heated opposition from Republicans and from many Democrats who are comfortable, indeed, with the back-scratching ethical compromises that have long been part of Capitol Hill culture. But vociferous demands from the new members who won their seats on ethics platforms -- and must defend them in November -- were coupled with Pelosi's sheer will: "You're going to do this, whether you like it or not," she told members behind closed doors, according to a staffer. The result of months of massaging the proposal was a 229-182 vote last week to establish the outside panel. Most Republicans -- 159 -- voted against the plan; 23 Democrats joined them in opposition.

The objections center on the fear that political enemies and outside groups will bring any and all matters to this outside committee, and that the ethics process will thus be reduced to yet another partisan witch hunt in a city that is all too often ensnared in them. It's up to Pelosi and the Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, to appoint members with impeccable credentials and records of political integrity who can act as antidotes to those with frivolous or partisan agendas. "They have it in their hands to not make it a political witch hunt," says Sarah Dufendach of Common Cause, one of the many good-government groups that backed the plan. "It can be a credible body. They need not fill it with partisan witches."

In fact, how the House leaders make their choices, and the judiciousness with which the panel handles its first few complaints, will give the public a rare opportunity to see whether Washington can "work" on matters such as ethical conduct, where ideological differences cannot be used to explain away inaction. And if this all goes swimmingly, then the new House panel can function as a role model for its friends across the Capitol's marble halls: Soon after the House's vote, the Senate said it intends to continue the practice of having only lawmakers on the Ethics Committee review complaints of wrongdoing. We'll see how long this old-think can withstand the stiff breeze of change.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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