By Richard Simon
WASHINGTON -- In a major overhaul of how it polices itself, and in response to a spate of scandals that have tarnished Congress' image, the House voted Tuesday night to create a panel of outsiders to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.
The measure establishes an independent Office of Congressional Ethics in answer to criticism that lawmakers have been reluctant to vigorously investigate their own.
Its passage was a victory for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), whose party won control of Congress in 2006 in part by highlighting ethical breaches under the then-Republican majority.
Right up until the final roll call, Pelosi worked hard to overcome opposition from within her own caucus to set up the office, which is intended to make it harder for politics to influence the process. 'Remove the doubt that is in the minds of the American people about the integrity of this body,' she pleaded before the vote.
'The public does not trust us,' added Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), who chaired an ethics task force that proposed the new office.
The measure was approved, 229-182, after a heated debate. Voting to create the office were 196 Democrats and 33 Republicans; opposed were 23 Democrats and 159 Republicans.
Tuesday's vote applies to the House. The Senate has rejected the idea as unnecessary.
Opponents complained that lawmakers were abdicating their responsibility and inviting partisan witch hunts.
'This is about the House, and the membership should decide whether any member has failed to meet its standards,' said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), delivering an impassioned speech opposing the new office. 'Does anybody believe that complaints won't be in the media immediately, regardless of validity?'
'If you have a single ounce of self-preservation, you'll vote no,' added Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.).
The measure's approval came as Congress considers cracking down on a practice that has figured prominently in Capitol Hill scandals: the special-interest items, known as earmarks, that are slipped into legislation by lawmakers, often at a lobbyist's behest.
The presidential candidates -- GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois -- all favor a moratorium on earmarks this year. House Democratic leaders are weighing one, in a preemptive strike to deprive Republicans of a campaign issue.
The vote to create the outside ethics office drew mixed reaction from watchdog groups. Common Cause welcomed it; the League of Women Voters complained that the new office lacks the subpoena power needed to do its job.
'The House has never before had procedural mechanisms and strict timelines to prevent the ethics committee from ignoring a complaint,' said Mary Boyle of Common Cause. 'Under this proposal, complaints would no longer languish uninvestigated for months or even years.'
Currently, ethics complaints are referred to the House Ethics Committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. But the committee, with five Democrats and five Republicans, has been ridiculed for years as a symbol of congressional dysfunction for failing to aggressively investigate the scandals that have rocked Capitol Hill in recent years and sent two lawmakers to prison.
The panel, in perhaps its highest-profile action in recent years, rebuked then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) three times in 2004 for his hard-nosed political tactics. But the next year, the panel's Republican chairman was bounced from his job, and two GOP lawmakers whose political action committees had contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund were appointed to the committee. A partisan dispute over rules then shut down the panel through much of 2006.
The new office will be a panel of six non-lawmakers -- possibly retired judges or former members of Congress or staffers -- jointly appointed by the House speaker and the minority leader. Lobbyists will not be allowed to serve.
If the outside panel determines that allegations of misconduct warrant further investigation, it will turn its findings over to the ethics committee for action. The outside panel is expected to put pressure on the committee to act. The committee will face new deadlines to act and will be required to release more of its findings to the public. Individuals other than members of Congress would still be barred from filing ethics complaints against lawmakers, though the panel could initiate investigations on its own.
Responding to allegations that the panel could lead to politically motivated investigations, Capuano noted that one appointee from each party would need to give approval to open a probe.
'There is now a complete and utter breakdown in the process,' said Brett G. Kappel, a Washington ethics lawyer. 'Anything to get the process working again would be an improvement.'
The measure follows last year's overhaul of ethics rules for Congress, including some aimed at reining in lobbyists' influence, passed in response to scandals that resulted in jail sentences for two former GOP congressmen, Randy 'Duke' Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe and Bob Ney of Ohio.
William J. Jefferson (D-La.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) have been indicted on corruption charges, and still others are under investigation. Jefferson supported the ethics office; Renzi did not vote.