Turn up the heat on the Hill

October 06, 2006|By Chellie Pingree

Maybe only a sex scandal can wake up a somnolent Congress and so outrage the American public that this sordid event becomes the catalyst for real change.

This is a story of two kinds of addictions: Rep. Mark Foley's alleged addiction to alcohol and presumed addiction to House pages, and the addiction of House leaders to winning elections at all cost.

You can go into rehab for alcohol and sex addictions. Unfortunately, there are no such facilities for those addicted to power.

But that addiction really is what prevented House leaders from taking all the precautions they should have when they learned about the "overly friendly" e-mails that Mr. Foley, a Florida Republican, was exchanging with a Louisiana page. Track the process, and it's clear that this was handled as a public relations and a political problem, not an ethics problem.

Last year, after the parents of a 16-year-old former page sponsored by Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican, told Mr. Alexander about the disturbing e-mails to their son, Mr. Alexander went to House leaders.

What should have happened then is pretty clear. The bipartisan Page Board that oversees the page program should have been informed. Mr. Foley should have had to answer their questions. The board should have met with the current pages to determine whether any of them had received inappropriate e-mails. They also should have discreetly surveyed former pages, asking for the same information. They could have made all these inquiries without naming Mr. Foley.

Instead, the matter went to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, who reports that he told House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Rep. John Shimkus, also an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House Page Board, reportedly quietly investigated - without even informing the board's two other members, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, and its lone Democrat, Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan.

And the quiet investigation led only to Mr. Foley's being told to cease contact with the page in question. No follow-up. No investigation. No accountability.

Sound familiar? This is the way the House and its leadership routinely handle allegations of misconduct. Even in a year notable for the number of members who have resigned under ethical clouds, the House failed to respond. So it's not surprising that "Pagegate" erupted.

But this can be the final chapter in a terribly sordid book. The House can use this scandal to change - to do the equivalent of going into rehab.

Congress should come back to Washington before the midterm elections Nov. 7 and enact real reform. A solution is available in the form of a House bill introduced by Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware to create an independent ethics commission that would report alleged violations by members of Congress to the House Ethics Committee or appropriate law enforcement agencies. Under the Castle bill, House leaders of both parties would appoint commissioners, who would be either former members of Congress not employed as lobbyists or retired federal judges. The seven-member commission would hire a staff of professionals capable of investigating allegations of misconduct by representatives and their staffs. The commission would be able to publicize the results of its fact-finding investigations and its recommendations to the House Ethics Committee about whether a given ethics complaint warrants a formal investigation or should be dismissed.

An independent ethics commission would ensure that House members and their staffs would be held accountable for misconduct. Similar commissions have worked successfully in Kentucky and Florida. Over time, elected officials realize the benefits of stricter accountability: less fear of politically motivated ethics complaints and greater trust by the public. Also, such a commission reduces members' obligations to police one another, something they are loath to do (and clearly incapable of doing).

Congress' job is to do what is best for the public. Getting elected is something members do on their own time. But the public has a right to ask - actually, to demand - that House members take a break from their campaigns and spend the one or two days it would take to pass legislation to create an independent ethics commission.

The House's record in the last two years on ethics matters proves that members cannot continue with their failed and discredited ethics process. This Congress has seen bribery convictions and one recent member sent to prison - with more likely to follow. The House needs to change the way it handles allegations of misconduct. And it must do it now.

Chellie Pingree is president of the political watchdog group Common Cause. Her e-mail is cpingree@commoncause.org.

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