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Parties Plot on Ethics Reform

Meetings on ethics reform are breaking out all over the Capitol this afternoon, as House Democrats try to convince their members to vote for the creation of a new office to screen complaints and Republicans prepare to unveil a counterproposal that would radically change House rules and the entire ethics process.

The House is currently scheduled to vote tomorrow on Democrats' proposal, which would establish a new Office of Congressional Ethics run by a bipartisan group of six non-members who would vet ethics complaints and pass them on to the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Several members expressed reservations about the plan at a Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday, and another Caucus meeting on the subject is planned for this afternoon.

At the same time, the Congressional Black Caucus has been huddling in the basement of the Capitol to discuss its members' misgivings about the plan. "My experience is that most new reforms have unintended consequences," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a CBC member. "I think that a number of members have concerns about the plan."

Though some Republicans -- particularly vulnerable ones -- are expected to vote for the Democratic proposal, GOP leaders are responding by proposing an ambitious plan of their own.

According to House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the GOP plan would:

• Add four outside individuals -- former members of Congress who are not registered lobbyists -- to the existing ethics committee, giving them full voting rights and investigative power. This would require a significant change in House rules, since it appears that no standing House committee has ever had non-lawmakers serve as panel members before.

• Allow outside groups or individuals to file complaints with the ethics committee -- via the House Inspector General, who would simply pass them on -- against House members or staff. This practice was banned in 1997 and lawmakers in both parties have been wary of bringing it back.

• Require the ethics committee to issue a monthly report outlining its actions, such as complaints considered or letters written (though without specifically naming any lawmakers).

• Compel the ethics committee to automatically forward to the Justice Department information on any investigation on which the panel has become deadlocked.

• Make all 10 members of the ethics panel -- including the six lawmakers and four outside individuals -- be jointly appointed by both parties, to prevent either side from stocking the committee with partisan firebrands.

• Make the ethics committee chairmanship a rotating post between the two parties every two years, no matter which side has the majority in the House.

It's important to note that Republicans can afford to make an outside-the-box proposal because it has almost no chance of becoming law. Thursday's vote on the Democratic proposal will be considered as a change in House rules, meaning that Republicans will not be allowed to offer an official substitute, amendments or a motion to recommit on the floor. All the GOP can do is have what is called a vote on the previous question, a procedural step that would not involve actually voting on the Republican proposal.

As things stand, it's not completely clear that the House will go through with the vote tomorrow on the Democrats' plan. For the leadership, it's a math problem -- how many Democrats will vote no, and will there be enough Republicans voting yes to make up for them?

Some Democrats worry their proposal will lead to more, possibly frivolous, complaints against members. Republicans complain that creating an outside office instead of fixing, as Blunt put it, "an ethics committee that looks for an excuse not to work." But members from both sides of the aisle may feel hard-pressed to explain to voters in their re-election campaigns why they wouldn't support the bill, especially with so many lawmakers under investigation or being indicted.

We'll know more when this marathon series of meetings ends later this afternoon.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 27, 2008; 3:12 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , House  
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