Lay Panel to Investigate Congress Ethics Cases

For the first time, outsiders will soon be investigating ethics charges against members of Congress. The House recently created an independent ethics office to handle allegations of wrongdoing by representatives.

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For the first time, outsiders could soon be investigating ethics charges against members of Congress. The U.S. House recently created an ethics office made up of non-members. It will look into allegations of wrongdoing by representatives and refer legitimate complaints to the House Ethics Committee for action. It's part of the Democrats' plan to improve the image of Congress but some watchdog groups questioned whether the independent panel will have the power to clean up Capitol Hill.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Until now, only members of the House could ask the Ethics Committee to investigate one of their colleagues.

Mr. ROBERT EDGAR (Former Democratic Representative, Pennsylvania; President, Common Cause): The current system is very much like a police department investigating itself.

ELLIOTT: Former Congressman Bob Edgar is president of Common Cause. The group lobbied for an independent body to investigate Ethics charges.

Mr. EDGAR: Congress just can't do it. I mean, we've had scandals where serious charges have been made, but the internal Ethics Committee would not move or take a vote because it was tied Democrats versus Republicans in an equal number.

ELLIOTT: Now, anyone can lodge a complaint and it will be vetted by the new six-person Ethics office. And the process won't be so secretive, if the office refers the case to the House Ethics Committee, it will be made public.

The idea of outsiders policing their behavior did not sit well with some members of Congress judging from their recent spirited late-night debate on the matter. One of the fiercest opponents of the Democratic leadership's plan was a 17-year veteran congressman from within the party's ranks, Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie.

Representative NEIL ABERCROMBIE (Democrat, Hawaii): This is an invitation to ideological mischief and character assassination.

ELLIOTT: Abercrombie argued that only members of the House can judge whether their brother are now adhering to the institution standards.

Rep. ABERCROMBIE: We are retreating before those who would tear this House down, who denigrate our commitment and make this ours to be a little more than crooks and maze and hustlers. We are the guardians of the nation's liberty. We are the defenders of its constitutional imperatives. We are the people's House. We should be proud to stand up for this House. Instead, we cringe before our critics and turn over our obligation to govern ourselves to others. If we have no respect for ourself, how can we expect it from anybody else? I am pleased to...

(Soundbite of crowd)

ELLIOTT: But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prevailed on members to help repair Congress' tarnished image in the wake of the host of Ethics scandals.

Speaker NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): We known each other to be honorable individuals who come here with the best motivation. Unfortunately, the American people do not share our view of ourselves.

ELLIOTT: Government accountability groups pushed for an independent process and added transparency. But some are not pleased with the outcome because the new Ethics office will not be able to subpoena witnesses or document.

Ms. MARY WILSON (President, League of Women Voters): Without the tees of the subpoena power, it's difficult to see how it can really be very effective.

ELLIOTT: Mary Wilson is president of the League of Women Voters.

Ms. WILSON: Normally, investigative powers include some clout if you will to compel cooperation. And so it does not seem as if it will have the power and the tees, so to speak, that is necessary to really be a good watchdog for Ethics in Congress.

ELLIOTT: Before the new panel can do anything, Speaker Pelosi and Republican leader John Boehner must jointly appoint its six members. The question is will they be able to reach agreement?

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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