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Why I voted Against the Ethics Bill

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Washington, March 16, 2008 | Anna Koch (202.225.3605) | comments

Representative K. Michael Conaway
San Angelo Standard-Times

Members of Congress have long resigned themselves to the knowledge that the American public does not think very much of them. Sadly, that does a great disservice to most of the members who were elected to serve in this great institution.  The overwhelming majority of us are honest, upstanding people who have come to Washington to work hard on behalf of our constituents back home.

Unfortunately, a few individuals have taken the time they were given as a Representative and instead used it to enrich themselves and cheat the public.  These scandals have badly shaken the public’s faith in our institutions, and given them good cause for giving Congress low marks.

As many of you probably remember, the honesty of Congress figured prominently into the 2006 Congressional elections.  When Speaker Nancy Pelosi was sworn into her role, she promised the American people that the House of Representatives would pass meaningful ethics reform. Unfortunately, the culmination of her year long “Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement,” a bill we voted on last Tuesday, had little meaning or substance to it at all.

Speaker Pelosi’s plan would create a new office, the Office of Congressional Ethics, to conduct preliminary investigations into allegations of misconduct. It would then forward its findings and recommendations to the existing Ethics Committee, which would conduct its own investigation. This new office would consist of a committee of six individuals, who are not lobbyists or Members of Congress, appointed evenly by the Speaker of the House and the House Majority Leader. It would have the power to accept accusations and investigate them, and then make findings of fact for the House Ethics Committee.

Unfortunately, Speaker Pelosi’s proposal is duplicative of the current process and does not address the current paralyzing short comings of the ethics process.  Instead of strengthening and providing transparency to the Ethics Committee, the House Majority has created a new bureaucracy that will be bound by partisan conflict, used as a political weapon to intimidate and cloud the careers of guiltless Members of Congress, and will probably raise more questions that it solves.

The standards of proof for this new office are far lower than those of the official Ethics Committee, as the office is intended to serve as a “watchdog” of congressional behavior.  In practice, it will likely serve as a repository for every salacious story on Capitol Hill.  It will be the place for disgruntled staffers, lobbyists, and others to leave their tips and innuendo of wrong doing, generating little more than baseless investigations. These investigations may go nowhere or they may be exploited as gratification to political agendas.

In this forum, Members would not necessarily be afforded the opportunity to face their accuser, a particularly un-American form of judicial proceeding.  I also have great reservations about the proceedings remaining secret, and I fear that the allegations investigated by the office will wind-up vomited into the public arena.

As a Member of Congress, my ability to serve my constituents is only as good as my integrity.  Yet, under the rules created for this new office, Representatives could be investigated for a wrongdoing by the fabricated word of one disgruntled individual.  The reputations that Members of Congress have nurtured their entire lives will be destroyed the moment a story of an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics leaks.  Regardless of a later finding clearing the Member of any wrongdoing, these individuals will be found guilty in the court of public opinion.

Any type of unethical scandal involving Members of Congress is a serious affair; but we do not need to create another layer of bureaucracy to investigate petty rumors. I would agree that the current system should be more effective. The House Ethics Committee remains in need of reform to strengthen its independence, make its process more transparent, and ensure that Members face appropriate punishment for wrongdoing. I support making such changes in a rational manner, but I cannot support a plan that subjects Members to the swirling suspicions of Capitol Hill, there are too many good people who might get caught up in the crossfire.

A stronger Ethics Committee would help flush out corrupt and unethical Members of Congress, but in the end, Members of Congress are human and no matter what investigative committees exist, corruption in Washington will continue. The best oversight in Congress will always be in the hands of the voters who choose whether to reelect a candidate. Constituents must remain engaged and vigilant and hold their elected officials accountable for their behavior.  Only in this way can we ensure that the members of the People’s House are fit to represent the People.

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