House of shame

April 26, 2006

Much of the biggest news out of Congress recently could have come from a police blotter.

The House majority leader is indicted in Texas on political corruption charges. A former top aide to the majority leader pleads guilty to running an unrelated criminal enterprise out of the leader's office, and a second former aide admits to bilking lobbying clients out of $20 million. Another congressman goes to the slammer for directing defense contracts to lobbyists who plied him with $2.4 million in personal gifts. And the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee steps down amid accusations that he channeled federal money to contributors and business partners.

Meanwhile, what has the feckless House Ethics Committee done? Nothing. The House should either give it the political backbone of a nonpartisan, independent agency to investigate ethics complaints or quit the charade.

So-called reform legislation scheduled for debate in the House tomorrow is pathetically weak even at what it promises to do, which is to tighten House ethics rules. It ignores the real problem: enforcement.

For a decade now, the two parties have colluded in a reprehensible pact to ignore each other's transgressions - and refused to consider complaints from outside the House.

If it weren't for aggressive journalism that led to criminal prosecutions, some of these offenders still might be abusing their positions. There may well be others.

Lawmakers eager to disassociate themselves from the scandals should vote tomorrow to create an Office of Public Integrity to help the Ethics Committee weed out frivolous charges and ensure serious complaints aren't swept under the rug.

All House members are to blame for the sordid atmosphere where anything goes and nobody knows. They should be ashamed of themselves.

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