Past Ethics Task Forces Are a Good Model for House Restoration

By Don Wolfensberger, as printed in the May 27, 2005 issue of Roll Call

Apr 29, 2005

The current imbroglio over House ethics rules takes me back to 1989, when I was the Republican staff director to the Bipartisan House Leadership Task Force on Ethics, co-chaired by Reps. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) and Vic Fazio (D-Calif.).

It is always tempting to wax nostalgic, so I will — with a caveat. The 1989 task force, created that February by then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), does stand as a model of quiet bipartisan deliberation and purpose, mainly because all of its meetings were held in a collegial setting: behind closed doors, at 8 a.m., over doughnuts and coffee, once a week.

At the same time, it should be remembered that the task force was established in the midst of a major partisan storm swirling around Wright's own ethics problems, a storm instigated by then-backbencher Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Yet the task force continued its work after Wright's voluntary resignation in June of that year and completed its work in late fall.

The driving force behind the task force was the need both for a Congressional pay raise and for abolishing honoraria from private groups for Members' speeches and articles. In addition to those two changes, the task force proposed sweeping ethics changes government-wide, culminating in the Nov. 30 enactment of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. Further changes were made in House ethics rules and processes in 1997 by another bipartisan leadership task force co-chaired by Reps. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.).

It is perhaps difficult today to understand how a bipartisan ethics effort could succeed in such a highly charged partisan atmosphere, as surely the House was in 1989 — let alone again as recently as 1997, when the wounds from the 1994 electoral upheaval were still open and stinging, and when Gingrich's own ethics problems were the subject of an ethics committee investigation.

Is such bipartisanship still possible today, given the reigniting of the ethics fires that members of both parties have used at one time or another to singe each other? While I am not as close to the flames as I once was, I am enough of an optimist and believer in the basic decency of Members on both sides that I think a solution to the current controversy is not only possible but imperative.

While it is fashionable in some political circles to decry the near-extinction of dedicated institutionalists in Congress today, I have a slightly different take. I see most Members today as still having a deep love and respect for the institution of Congress and an awareness of its vital, independent role in our national government.

The problem is not a lack of institutional love or loyalty, but rather that it is not being promoted, summoned or utilized by party leaders with any regularity or sense of necessity. This is not difficult to understand, given the narrow majority party edge in the House. Party leaders — understandably — see their jobs first and foremost as getting their Members elected and scoring legislative successes that will help secure majority control. This narrow focus — day to day, bill to bill, Member to Member — leads party leadership to lose sight of larger institutional problems looming and how their neglect can damage the entire Congress and all in it, regardless of party.

When something like the current ethics stalemate imperils the institution, the first reaction is to become both defensive and offensive in a typical partisan mode, bred in deep distrust of the other party and its motives. But deeper reflection on both sides gives cause to step back and reflect on the larger institutional issues and dangers and the need to appeal to all concerned to pull things back together for the good of the Congress and the country.

The bipartisan leadership task force models of the past are not a bad place to begin this House restoration project. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the ethics committee from operating under existing House rules that govern all committees, with ample authorities and procedures spelled out in clause 2 of Rule XI.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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