House Democrats have floated a trial balloon about setting up an outside ethics panel to police such matters travel, lobbying, gifts and the like according to a New York Times story today.
Evidently Nancy Pelosi has floated this idea to John Boehner and it is causing some talk on the Hill:
"An independent Congressional watchdog, if approved, would be a major break with tradition. Some lawmakers say House and Senate members have sole responsibility for policing themselves when it comes to internal rules.
Some lawmakers have said an independent entity could be unconstitutional."
Clearly public corruption has been and is a HUGE issue during the tenure of the GW bush administration and the American public has made it quite clear that they are fed up. That was some election day we had last month.
"Several ideas have circulated about setting up an independent review board."
Sorta like the Civilian Complaint Review Board we have here in NYC that is supposed to review complaints of police brutality? God, I hope not. Even the cops don't have faith in it. More rubber stamping by appointed insiders who are not even accountable to voters and can't be thrown out of office directly. Just what we need—NOT.
"A coalition of House and Senate lawmakers has proposed a professional Office of Public Integrity that would consider and investigate ethics complaints."
If you staffed and ran it with "career prosecutor" types and modeled it after the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility, maybe you might have something that worked–after a fashion. It really would depend on who you staffed it with and who the first chief was. Similarly, you could set up an Inspector General's Office for Congress, like the rest of the federal IG system. Once again, effectiveness would be closely tied to how strong the IG is. Lately, the current IG system has been having it's problems because the relevant Cabinet Secretaries have taken to slashing their budgets in an effort to stymie effective oversight. So, you need an IG able to win a battle of wills.
"Other lawmakers have called for review by a bipartisan group of former members of Congress."
Oh great, just what we need, another 9/11 Commission; full of people with their own skeletons to hide. Please tell me this idea will die aborning.
"Most believe any independent group would have to work with the existing ethics committee, which is made up of an even number of House Republicans and Democrats and has the power to punish lawmakers up to expulsion."
Uh yeah, cause the constitution says Congress is supposed to set its own rules and police itself. Can't change that with some casual, transitory bit of legislation. So what's a Congress to do?
My humble suggestion is that they take a page out of their own recent legislation: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
This is a gross oversimplification, but the S-O Act requires corporations to set up oversight committees. Not unlike the already existing House Ethics Committee, so we are already halfway there. When the oversight committee gets a whiff that something is amiss, the oversight committee is obligated to go hire an outside investigative/auditing/law firm to conduct and investigation and report back. Usually, the contract engaging the investigator provides that if the independent investigator finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing, that investigator is to report that wrongdoing directly to the appropriate prosecuting entity.
This is similar to a concept advanced back in the late 1980s by the NY State Organized Crime task Force in a report on how to break the Mafia's control of the construction and waste management industries in the NY Tri State area. The report called for the hiring of Independent Private Sector Inspectors General (IPSIGs) to investigate firms that had shady backgrounds.
Likewise, pursuant to a DOJ policy embodied in a document known as the "Thompson Memo" there was a proliferation of Federal Monitors hired to ensure the corporations which had been the subject of federal criminal investigations cleaned up their acts. Some of these monitors were court appointed, some were imposed as the result of a deferred prosecution agreement.
(An interesting aside–despite the fact that prosecutions under the guidelines in the Thompson Memo have been spectacularly successful and the work of the Enron Task force has had all of the corporate legal world abuzz for some time now, or more likely BECAUSE of that buzz, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty responding to whining from the White Collar Crime Defense Bar and the Corporate Bar has just issued a new memo replacing and superseding the very effective, efficient and useful Thompson Memo. You can read the McNulty Memo here.)
There actually already exists a body of law firms, accounting firms and investigations firms that have been doing these independent investigations at the behest of government for years and years. They have uncovered millions of dollars of waste, fraud and abuse and referred many crimainal cases for prosecution all without creating a permanent bureaucracy or infrastructure. Many of these firms are deliberately bipartisan so neither side can have much influence on them. They have monitored labor unions, audited the emergency contacts let to clear the pile at Ground Zero (contrast that project with Katrina where there were no IPSIGs to see how an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure) and performed countless other monitorshipsand investigations from huge corporations like AOL/Time Warner and Computer Associates, down to local School Boards and everything in between.
No need to reinvent the wheel. Just ask the House Ethics Committee to act in the way corporate compliance and audit committees are supposed to perform under Sarbanes-Oxley.
It's simple, easy, and you can implement tomorrow. Just a thought.