Lawmakers Want Outside Office to Oversee Ethics Issues

Several lawmakers said Thursday that Congress should create an independent office to oversee ethics issues, arguing that the ethics committees in the House and Senate have proved incapable of enforcing their own rules.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., outlined a plan for an ethics enforcement commission that would receive complaints from the public as well as from legislators, have subpoena and deposition powers, and could present cases to the House and Senate ethics committees or the Justice Department.

He said the nine-member commission would include at least four former federal judges and four former members of Congress.

Also on Thursday, Reps. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who partnered in sponsoring the campaign finance reform law enacted in 2002, introduced a bill to create an office of public integrity — a professional, independent, nonpartisan office to investigate ethics complaints.

The office they envision would cover both the House and Senate and would have such responsibilities as reviewing member financial reports, advising members and staff on ethics and lobbying rules and investigating allegations of ethics violations. As with the Obama bill, the ethics committees would make final decisions on whether violations have occurred and what sanctions should be levied.

The idea of an outside commission, also part of a House-Senate Democratic lobbying reform proposal, is in response to several recent ethical breaches, including the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., to charges he accepted bribes. It also reflects frustration with the two ethics committees, particularly the House panel that has been largely inactive for the past year.

"The sad truth is that neither the House nor the Senate ethics process inspires public confidence that Congress can serve as an effective watchdog over its own members," Obama said.

Both the House and Senate within the next month may take up legislation that would tighten rules on the travel and gifts members can receive from lobbyists and others and require added disclosure from lobbyists on their contacts with members of Congress.

But Obama, who is working with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republicans on an ethics overhaul package, said none of these actions "will make a difference if there isn't a nonpartisan, independent body that will help us enforce those laws."