Can Congress Police Itself?

An editorial in Roll Call today reaches the conclusion that oh-so-many across the nation have already figured out: no, Congress cannot police itself.

The final straw for them is the recent exchange of letters between the chair of the House ethics committee, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), and the ranking minority member, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), in which Hastings is calling for Mollohan to step aside from the ethics committee until a probe by federal investigators into this finances is resolved. (The probe was first reported in the Wall Street Journal this past Friday.)  For his part, Mollohan is questioning Hasting’s stewardship of the committee.

As Roll Call notes, "by the time Congress returns from its current recess… both chambers will be drifting inexorably toward a season of debate over hot-button political issues in advance of the November elections and the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct will have accomplished essentially nothing."

The partisan standoff in the committee seems set in stone. While Roll Call believes that Mollohan should step aside from the committee until the investigation into his finances is resolved (and we would recommend the same for Hastings, who was appointed by the Republican House leadership with the apparent purpose of making sure the ethics committee does as little work as possible), they do note that the problem is about more than any individuals. Oddly, though, their only proposed solution is to call on House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to break the jam by replacing the entire committee – as if the leadership wasn’t already responsible for the deadlock, or as if ten new members of Congress would somehow produce a different result.

The real answer, as the reform community has stressed since the beginning, is an independent ethics investigating body, or Office of Public Integrity as it is now commonly called. Nothing less will even begin to get at the problem.

While they miss this obvious solution, Roll Call does agree that the reputation of Congress is in a shambles, and that if Congress doesn’t fix it now, "voters may deliver an even stronger message about what they expect to see among the first orders of business next year." From their page to the electorate’s ears….

-Gordon Clark