Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ethics reform passes the House

For a couple of weeks now, Common Cause has been actively pushing for an independent ethics oversight body to watch over the doings and mis-doings of those in the House and Senate. According to Common Cause, they were motivated to do this after several (and I should add, bi-partisan) failures of the respective Senate and House ethics committees to do anything in high-profile ethics cases.

For instance, you remember when William Jefferson (D) was caught with $90,000 stashed away in his freezer? Or that whole mess with Jack Abramoff and well, a whole lot of folks with (R) after their names? The House ethics committee pretty much let all that stuff slide.

Today, Common Cause announced that they have had some success: the House has passed a resolution calling for just such a thing: a six-member panel of non-lawmakers with the power to review and investigate allegations of ethics violations.

While I have to say that the notion of an independent ethics oversight committee is appealing, I have to ask the question of whether this is really necessary? The existing Ethics Committee's lapses would suggest so, but perhaps there are other alternatives that should be considered as well. Namely, wouldn't it be better to fix what we have, if that's possible, than to build something new?

To look into that, I thought it would be helpful to know what my own Congressman, Dave Reichert, thinks on the matter--and to be fair, what his challenger Darcy Burner thinks about it as well--so I sent them both a panel of questions last Thursday.

Sadly, Representative Reichert's office, while they were happy to take my questions, declined to comment for this story. Ms. Burner's campaign spokesperson Sandeep Kaushik did, however.

NPI: Exit polling after the 2006 elections showed a lot of voters citing corruption as an important issue for them, after high-profile scandals involving Representatives Jefferson, Cunningham, and Ney in which the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct did nothing. Have you seen any particular difference in the Committee's actions or pursuit of ethics charges since the 2006 elections? In your view, is the Committee responding to the electorate's concerns?

Kaushik: Unfortunately, not really. Darcy believes that the House ethics committee has not functioned well in recent years, and this still remains true today. It has been bogged down by partisan feuding, operates behind a cloak of secrecy and has been slow to act even when credible allegations of serious wrongdoing surface. To give you a recent example, Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) had been dogged for months by allegations that he participated in a shady land deal. But the committee only launched an investigation of Renzi after he was finally indicted on 35 counts of money laundering, extortion and other serious offenses. Congress needs to be far more proactive about investigating alleged breaches of ethics (or as in this case, criminal misconduct) by members. The failure of the committee to do its job properly has serious consequences, allowing a culture of corruption to flourish within the Congress. When Darcy is elected, she is going to work to change that.

NPI: Would you say that the Committee is functioning as it should? If not,what would need to be done to make the Committee an effective oversight body?

Kaushik: Darcy believes that the most important change would be to ensure that the members on the committee put a belief in good government above any personal political interest or partisan ties. The committee should also operate more openly where possible--we need greater transparency in government, particularly on important issues like ethics. Darcy recently pledged to go well beyond current ethics rules and publicly post information on her web site about any earmark she requests--she is committed to making government more open.

NPI: Common Cause has recently called for the creation of an external oversight body, an "Independent office of Congressional Ethics." What is your opinion on that, or any similar, proposal? Or in other words, do you think that the Congress is structurally capable of policing itself?

Kaushik: Legislation currently under consideration in the House [ed: this refers to the resolution passed yesterday] would create such an office, consisting of six non-members, chosen from both parties. The panel would review allegations of wrongdoing and forward those with merit to the ethics committee for action. Darcy supports this idea – given all the congressional scandals of recent years, it is obvious that the current system is simply not working and we need to strengthen ethics oversight. Unfortunately, this bill is running into a lot of opposition in the House from members in both parties. Darcy feels strongly that we really do need to change the inside-the-Beltway business-as-usual politics of Washington, D.C. That is a big part of the reason she is running for Congress.

My thanks to the Burner campaign for their response. Ms. Burner, anyway, should be happy with yesterday's vote in the House; Dave Reichert, probably less so. For the record, he voted against the creation of an independent Office of Congressional Ethics.


Post a Comment

<< Home