Congress needs a new way of enforcing ethical standards
Philadelphia Inquirer: With apologies to Mark Twain: Suppose you are a member of Congress. And suppose you are misbehaving with impunity. But we repeat ourselves.
The public has lost every last shred of confidence in the ability of Congress to police the conduct of its own members. The House ethics committee rarely meets, mired in partisan disagreement. The last time it took any action of note against a representative was in 2004, when it criticized former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for three ethics lapses. The Republican leaders' solution to that embarrassment was to boot the chairman off the committee.
The Senate ethics panel last punished a senator in 2002, when it scolded former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., for accepting expensive baubles from a political supporter.
A congressional freeze on ethics enforcement is especially conspicuous this year, with one former congressman -- Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., -- in prison for accepting bribes, and the Justice Department investigating the actions of several lawmakers allegedly involved with influence-peddling lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Lawmakers' willful neglect of their institution's standards is one reason that the public's approval rating of Congress has plummeted to about 30 percent.
A sensible solution to this inaction has been proposed by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass. Their bill would create an Office of Public Integrity to oversee the House and Senate. Republican and Democratic leaders would select jointly (admittedly a leap of faith) a director for the office.
The new office would be responsible for overseeing lawmakers' financial disclosure and lobbying reports. It would provide advice on complying with ethics and lobbying rules. It would initiate investigations into possible ethics violations, and act on complaints. After conducting an investigation, the office would present evidence to the House or Senate ethics committees for decisions of whether violations have occurred.
While this proposal still leaves the final decision in the hands of committees that have been ineffectual, the new office would at least launch investigations and gather evidence, putting pressure on the ethics committees to act. If you believe this extra layer shouldn't be necessary, you're right. But the recent history of ethics gridlock in Congress demonstrates that it is necessary.
Without effective oversight of ethical standards, the rules become meaningless.