THE STRONGEST ethics rules in the world don't mean much without an effective way to enforce them. That's especially clear when it comes to Congress, whose enforcement process is designed to create gridlock and has too often performed accordingly. This month the House adopted an important change that holds the promise of ending this bipartisan lassitude. Pressed by the Democratic leadership under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a not-entirely-enthusiastic majority voted narrowly to create an independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
This office will have a board of six members, to be named jointly by the speaker and the minority leader; these are to be 'individuals of exceptional public standing who are specifically qualified to serve on the board by virtue of their education, training, or experience in one or more of the following fields: legislative, judicial, regulatory, professional ethics, business, legal, and academic.'
The office will have the power to accept ethics complaints and, at the behest of at least one appointee of each party, launch investigations of potential ethical missteps by lawmakers and staff. If it finds reason to proceed, it will refer the matter to the existing House ethics committee, along with its factual findings and recommendations for subpoenas, if needed. The final disposition -- and any recommendations for punishment -- would be left to the ethics panel.
This is not a perfect system by any means. We would have preferred to have the board itself empowered to subpoena evidence. But this change reflects a vast, and overdue, improvement over the current process. The alternative that Republicans offered was a joke. They proposed to expand the existing ethics committee (from 10 to 14 members) and to require it to complete investigations within 90 days or refer the matter to the Justice Department. This proposal misconstrued the fundamental job of the committee, which is to deal with ethical issues that often do not rise to the level of criminal violations. It also misunderstands the essential nature of the problem, which is that, whatever its size, the committee is programmed for inaction.
'We don't need a new layer of bureaucracy to stand between those who break the rules and those who must enforce them,' Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in arguing against the new board. Actually, a new layer with the capacity to spur the ethics committee into action is precisely what's needed. And what's needed now is for Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner to turn their attention to finding the kind of 'individuals of exceptional public standing' who are needed to help Congress gets its ethical house in order.