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Turn On the House Lights

March 22, 2004

In the last year, lawmakers have grilled everyone from corporate chieftains to baseball executives about malfeasance in their industries. But at the very same time they have gone to great lengths to exempt from scrutiny another institution sorely in need of reform -- Congress itself.

Was Nick Smith, a Michigan representative, offered a $100,000 bribe for his Medicare drug bill vote? Did Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, launder corporate donations via the Republican National Committee? How did the naif 29-year-old daughter of Curt Weldon, a House member from Pennsylvania, land a $240,000 contract with a family tied to the deposed Serbian dictator who is on trial for war crimes?

Though the public might want these and other serious questions about U.S. representatives' integrity answered, somnolence seems the incorrigible condition of the House Ethics Committee and congressional leaders. They're more eager to preserve congressional peace than to protect democracy from the corrosive effects of compounding allegations of abuse, corruption and conflicts of interest. Both House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) should drop their hostility to investigations and to reform before Congress discredits itself further.

No clear proof of wrongdoing or criminal charges exist in the Smith, DeLay and Weldon matters. A grand jury in Texas has been impaneled to consider claims about DeLay. Reporters Ken Silverstein, Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper of The Times have investigated odious dealings involving Weldon's daughter Karen. Other watchdogs have complained for months about Smith's claim that GOP officials threatened him over his opposition to the Medicare bill, then offered to donate $100,000 to his son's effort to replace him in the House.

Aren't the dirty details of what's going on in these and other cases of any interest to House ethics guardians? Not a chance. Mindful of the acrimony and tumult that toppled House speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, a Texas Democrat and a Georgia Republican respectively, the two parties have called a tacit seven-year truce on ethics probes. It's part of a history of clubby lawmakers' incapacity to police themselves; it took Congress until 1853 to outlaw bribes, and the Senate and House ethics committees weren't established until the mid-1960s.

But whenever the emphasis on ethics lapses, the appearance of corruption arises, as it has in the House. There, at best, Hastert and Pelosi would let a few, select congressional hens meet in subcommittees to cluck at lawmaker foxes. The House ethics panel, alas, won't talk about its torpor.

And unlike the Senate, the House won't let outsiders lodge ethics complaints that lead to real investigations, a rules change that it passed in 1997 and should rescind. By creating an outside panel of judges to consider cases, the House could avoid the prospect of proliferating frivolous charges.

Although a Smith probe finally may be at hand, House leaders need pointed reminding that the GOP seized the chamber in 1994 in part because of voter disgust at Democrats who were treating Congress as if it were their piggy bank. And even though door-mat Democrats -- at least that's how they claim to feel when legislating with a GOP majority -- would seem to have more to gain with robust House ethics enforcement, the paralysis of the committee isn't a partisan issue. It's about trust, the crucial faith among voters that they have representatives who govern honestly.

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