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The new Congress deserves credit for quickly and strongly responding to the scandals of last year by passing sweeping changes to the rules that will reduce the special access of wealthy and powerful interests in Washington. It was a critical first step.
We now urge you to finish the job by supporting legislation that will ensure that the new rules will be adequately enforced. Today, we ask you to be a co-sponsor legislation introduced by Sens. Lieberman, Collins and Obama to enforce the rules.
Jack Abramoff’s fall from power cannot be credited to an aggressive House or Senate ethics enforcement process. He was turned in to the Justice Department by a competitor turned whistle-blower. After the initial details of the case came out, the public saw no action from the House and Senate Ethics Committees. There was no evidence the committees initiated any probe nor asked any questions nor made any attempt to see if members had violated the rules and the public trust. The House Ethics Committee was so paralyzed they failed to even convene a meeting for most of the 109th Congress.
The current system is broken. Overseeing one’s own colleagues is difficult under any circumstances, but oversight in a charged partisan environment like the U.S. Congress is, as we have now seen, impossible. This is not to say that members of Congress are any less capable than others to self-police, no one self-polices well. In the Executive Branch there is an Office of Government Ethics. Businesses have outside auditors. Disciplinary boards for lawyers and doctors have strict rules regarding conflicts of interest. Congress needs independent and professional oversight and enforcement of the rules.
Under the bill, Congress would still maintain final responsibility for any sanction against a member. The oversight office would receive complaints and have authority to investigate where evidence suggests a violation has occurred. The importance of the office is that there will be an impartial, nonpartisan review of the complaints.
While some have expressed concerns about the filing of frivolous complaints, the change actually offers members better protection against false accusations. Current practice is for outside groups to send up unofficial and public ‘complaint’ letters with accusations that go to the ethics committees but are never resolved. In the last election, some members found themselves answering questions about those unresolved accusations. The proposed system would establish a set amount of time for handling complaints and to determine if a complaint was frivolous. Members would then receive notification from a nonpartisan, independent entity testifying to the fact that there was no foundation to baseless attacks.
The ethics and lobby reform bill adopted with almost unanimous support closed many of the loopholes that have allowed undue influence of powerful lobbyists. To ensure that the new rules are more than paper tigers, Congress must also move to create outside, professional oversight to enforce the rules and give assurance to the American people that the new Congress will different from the last.
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