House Democrats, trying to restore integrity to the chamber's tarnished image, pushed through a measure Tuesday to create an outside panel to review possible ethical lapses by its members.
The new Office of Congressional Ethics would bring fundamental changes to how the House investigates itself. It would be charged with reviewing cases and referring them to the House ethics committee, which has drawn wide criticism in recent years for its partisanship and ineffectiveness.
The vote was 229-182, with much of the opposition coming from Republicans who argued that lawmakers should be able to police themselves.
The new office would be composed of six people appointed jointly by the House speaker and the minority leader. They could not be current members, federal employees or lobbyists. Recommendations of censure or punishment, including expulsion, would still rest with the ethics committee.
"The public really does not trust us on ethics issues at this point," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., who headed the task force that proposed the new independent entity. "They think we are all here protecting each other."
The vote came more than a year after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader John Boehner asked the bipartisan task force to come up with a plan to fix the House's broken system for investigating member misconduct. Capuano in December introduced the plan for an outside board.
But the partisanship that has plagued the ethics committee marked the task force as well.
Republicans refused to sign off on the plan and last month came up with their own proposal, focusing on making the ethics committee more open and responsive. It would require the committee to refer all matters not resolved within 90 days to the FBI and the Justice Department.
'New layer of bureaucracy'
"Let's be clear: If there is wrongdoing, the ethics committee should do its job ... or get out of the way for law enforcement," said Boehner, R-Ohio. "We don't need a new layer of bureaucracy to stand between those who break the rules and those who must enforce them."
Republicans almost succeeded in killing the measure, losing by just one vote on a 207-206 procedural vote to consider the matter. Republicans yelled in protest as Democrats held the 15-minute vote open for 27 minutes while Democratic leaders urged holdouts in the party to support the party position.
The Democratic leadership had planned to bring up the proposal two weeks ago but pulled the bill in the face of GOP opposition and dissatisfaction among some Democrats who either disliked the independent office or who said it would be too weak because it lacked subpoena powers.
Democrats made several changes, including requiring that investigations be initiated by at least one Republican and one Democrat to avoid partisan-motivated witch hunts. Stricter confidentiality rules were imposed on office members and staff.
That still didn't satisfy all Democrats. "This is an invitation to ideological mischief and character assassination," said a leading Democratic critic, Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. "We cringe before our critics and turn over our obligations to govern ourselves to others."
Clean government groups such as Public Citizen, Democracy 21, U.S. PIRG and the League of Women Voters said the independent ethics panel was needed.
'Silent and virtually inactive'
The past five years, said Common Cause's Mary Boyle, have seen "some of the worst congressional scandal in recent history," with two members jailed on bribery charges, two under indictment for corruption and at least two under FBI investigations "while the House ethics committee has remained silent and virtually inactive."
The rules change affects only the House: the Senate ethics committee has generally worked more effectively and those proposing creation of an independent body have made little headway.
Under the new rules:
- It takes two members of the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, one from each party, to initiate a preliminary investigation.
- Three board members must vote to move to a second-phase review.
- All second-phase reviews must be submitted to the ethics committee with recommendations of dismissal, further inquiry or reports of a tie vote.
- The committee has 45 calendar days to review a case. There is no public disclosure if the committee dismisses the case. It must make an announcement if it decides to defer a review at the request of a law enforcement agency or establish an investigative subcommittee. If no conclusion is reached after a year, the OCE report is published.