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St. Petersburg Times (FL): Ethics Rehab for House

March 13, 2008

We don't know if hell has frozen over, but the U.S. House of Representatives has done something almost as unlikely - it took a strong stand against political corruption this week by creating an independent ethics office. Credit Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who overcame a Republican effort to derail the reform and even rebellion within her own party ranks.

Most Republicans and some Democrats fear that ethics complaints, even if unfounded, will now get publicized. 'If you have a single ounce of self-preservation, you'll vote no,' Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., warned his colleagues before the vote. Yet members of the House (and Senate) need to be more motivated by ethical considerations than self-preservation.

The way it has worked until now is House Ethics Committee members make a show of policing their fellow members, but there is little evidence they take their duties seriously. Within the past three years, four House members have been indicted on corruption charges, two are serving prison sentences and two others are currently under investigation (not to mention the conviction of five staffers). Yet the Ethics Committee has largely remained silent in those cases.

The resolution, which affects only the House, creates a six-member panel that can conduct its own investigations and recommend cases to the Ethics Committee. Three members will be appointed by Democrats and three by Republicans, with current House members and lobbyists excluded from consideration.

The next step, choosing the panel, is important. 'This will work like it is supposed to if the (ethics office) can independently and objectively enforce the rules of conduct in the House - something that has been missing for more than a decade,' said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, which supported the resolution.

Recent polls show that voters have lost faith in the integrity of their political institutions, especially Congress. This resolution could be the start of a rehabilitation process, at least in the House.