Maryland Rep. Wants to Allow Outside Groups to File Ethics Complaints

Members of the House of Representatives should be subject to ethics complaints from outside groups, Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, told a House committee Thursday.

Testifying before the Rules Committee, Cardin pitched an amendment to the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act to allow outsiders to file complaints directly with the House Ethics Committee. Ethics reform advocates applauded the move, but called the Republican-sponsored bill and its Senate counterpart "very, very weak."

"Outside good government groups have repeatedly called for non-members to be permitted to file ethics complaints," Cardin said before the committee. "Under my proposal, the Ethics Committee would still retain the authority to investigate and dispose of the complaints as it sees fit."

Both houses of Congress are reviewing ethics and lobbying laws in response to a spate of political corruption connected to lobbyists. Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced Wednesday to nearly six years in prison on separate fraud charges, and former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., received more than eight years earlier this month for accepting $2.4 million in bribes.

In addition, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, has been identified in court documents as having pocketed bribes from Abramoff.

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for the government watchdog group Common Cause, welcomed Cardin's provision but criticized both the House and Senate bills for lacking outside enforcement of ethics rules.

"Members of Congress are loath to file ethics complaints against themselves," Boyle said. "They certainly don't have the stomach for it. The heart, stomach, soul — whatever. We've said all along, any kind of credible enforcement has to have outside regulation."

The proposal marks Cardin's second bid to enable outside groups to file complaints with the Ethics Committee. In 1997, Cardin served as co-chairman of an ethics reform task force that recommended a similar change, but the House rejected it.

Echoing Boyle, Cardin said in an interview that his proposal is geared at eliminating the political squabbling that often accompanies ethics accusations.

"It's awkward for a member to file a complaint against another member," Cardin said. "It's often seen as politically motivated."

Cardin told the committee that the House has reached a "crossroads" because some members of Congress have talked about "truces" that would effectively place a moratorium on all ethics grievances.

Cardin declined to give his views of the bill as a whole.

In light of the scandal surrounding Abramoff, the House bill is a feeble attempt at reform because it neglects enforcement of current rules, Boyle said.

"It's like Congress doesn't get it, despite the Jack Abramoff scandal," Boyle said. "They're saying, 'There's no problem here. What problem?'"

The Rules Committee took up the bill a day after the Senate approved its own version. Senate ethics rules already allow outside groups to file complaints, Cardin said.

The House bill, which would require lobbyists to disclose their expenses quarterly, aims to limit independent fund-raising organizations known as "527s" and narrowly tailored appropriations known as earmarks.

Although it was expected to crack down on lobbying, the Senate opted for more disclosure by lobbyists instead of creating an independent office to enforce lobbying and ethics laws.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.