For most of the last Congress the House Ethics Committee was dormant or dysfunctional, for reasons I described in the article Ethics Go-Round.
Even when Howard Berman replaced Alan Mollohan as the ranking Democrat last April, the Committee still didn’t do much. Its recent report on the Foley scandal, which laughably found that no lawmaker violated House rules, proved just how inconsequential the Committee has become.
Today Nancy Pelosi announced that Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a former prosecutor and well-respected progressive from Cleveland, will head the Ethics Committee in the 110th Congress. Maybe she can breathe some life into this slumbering institution. “I hope to be able to restore the public’s confidence in the ethics committee and in Congress,” Tubbs Jones told the LA Times.
Others are skeptical that new leadership at the top will be enough. “They didn’t do their job last year, and I don’t think they’ll do their job next year,” said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. “The problem is inherent with the committee itself and not with the chairman.”
If Congress won’t enforce its own rules, then someone else should. What’s needed is an independent oversight body with subpoena power, known as the Office of Public Integrity, that can put teeth into the ethics process.
Pelosi, in consultation with John Boehner, has appointed a bipartisan task force to study the issue and report back with recommendations by March. Why wait until then? When the House and Senate introduce their ethics and lobbying reform package in early January, the Office of Public Integrity should be a front and center priority.