WASHINGTON – Toughening ethics laws, once a priority of Democrats, has bogged down in Congress as party leaders find their campaign promises colliding with lawmakers' re-election concerns.
Two months have passed since a task force was supposed to have recommended how an independent panel might look into ethics complaints before they go to the House ethics committee. A key sticking point is opposition in both parties to letting outsiders file complaints against members of Congress.
Currently, only House members can initiate an ethics probe. Public watchdog groups call the restriction self-serving and unreasonable.
Some of the same groups, however, are balking at a second proposal floated by task force members. It would require any group that lodges an ethics complaint against a House member to reveal its donors.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said the demand for donor lists from groups that file complaints "is what has tied this thing up for now."
The nonprofit groups call it intimidation. Lawmakers say it's a way to ascertain whether such groups are backed by right- or left-leaning forces with partisan motives.
Meanwhile, a Senate spat over rules governing senators' requests for special projects in their home states is blocking efforts to merge into one bill separate House- and Senate-passed measures to restrict lawmakers' dealings with lobbyists. The Senate passed its version in January, and the House passed its bill in May.
"I find it distressing that they haven't dealt with these issues," Craig Holman of Public Citizen said, referring particularly to the House task force.
For years, self-described government-reform groups have denounced the House ethics committee, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, as listless and largely toothless. Unlike the Senate ethics committee, the House panel no longer accepts complaints from nonmembers. And it sometimes says little or nothing about its inquiries, leaving the public unsure whether serious investigations took place.
On Jan. 31, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appointed a bipartisan task force to recommend whether an independent panel of nonmembers should investigate ethics complaints and play a role in enforcing rules of conduct. That report was due May 1.
Long past the deadline, task force members privately briefed colleagues on a plan in which the speaker and minority leader would each appoint three members to a panel that would look at complaints — from members or nonmembers — and recommend whether the House ethics committee should pursue them. The independent panel's findings, in most cases, would eventually become public.
The proposal immediately drew fire from seemingly every direction. "They have problems inside and outside," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Several House members said political adversaries could use an open-complaint system to file dozens of frivolous allegations and then cite them in campaign attack ads. The concern is understandable, McGehee said, but senators have long allowed nonmembers to file ethics allegations "and they're not in peril."
Watchdog groups called the plan weak, especially because the new panel would lack subpoena powers to compel testimony and demand documents. The panel "would have a free hand to recommend the dismissal of a complaint and would be greatly restricted in recommending anything else," lawmakers were told in a letter last week from groups including Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and the Campaign Legal Center.
They also objected to the donor-disclosure proposal, which they called unprecedented for the House, Senate, Justice Department, Federal Election Commission and other agencies that receive public allegations of official wrongdoing.
"Now they want your donor base," if a group tries to file an ethics complaint, said Sarah Dufendach, chief of legislative affairs for Common Cause, which on balance supports the House proposals. "It may chill some groups from actually filing," she said.
Many lawmakers are insisting on such disclosures, saying the public should know as much as possible about people behind allegations that could hurt a politician's career. Some Republicans particularly like the disclosure proposal because they believe groups such as Common Cause are heavily financed by Democrats and liberals.
Dufendach shrugged off the concern. "Whatever kind of information you give is going to be spun," she said.
Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., the chairman of the House task force, said its tentative recommendation to consider ethics complaints from outside groups remains a sticking point.
"We've had some push-back" from House members and outsiders, he said in an interview last week. "We're plugging ahead. The goal is to get something meaningful that can pass."
Capuano added, however, that could not predict whether the task force can settle on a plan that would win House approval.