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About That New Ethics Office...

Capitol Briefing's alma mater, Roll Call, had a good story Monday (subscription req'd) about some questionable behavior by a House aide that would make fine fodder for the newly formed Office of Congressional Ethics' first investigation.

The story reported that Jerry Hurckes -- Rep. Daniel Lipinski's (D-Ill.) top district aide who also serves as an elected member of the Oak Lawn, Ill., board of trustees -- has been bragging about earmarks he helped secure as a congressional staff member in town meetings and in literature for his re-election campaign.

The House ethics manual says that "staff who serve as local officials should always make clear in which capacity they are acting. They should discourage any suggestion that their local constituents will receive special treatment from the congressional office, beyond that received by other residents of the congressional district."

On its face, Hurckes' behavior at least seems worth further scrutiny by the ethics office. But here's the problem: The new office's inaugural investigation may well not start until the next president is inaugurated in 2009.

As Politico has pointed out, language contained in the law effectively limits the office's window for conducting investigations this year to July and August. And sources in both the Republican and Democratic leadership say it appears unlikely the office will be ready to work by the time that window opens up.

The bill creating the ethics office states that the office "shall not undertake any review of any alleged violation by a Member, officer, or employee of the House ... before 120 days after the date of adoption of this resolution." The bill passed March 11, so the earliest the office could launch a probe would be the week of July 9.

But the bill also states that the ethics committee "may not receive any referral from the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics within 60 days before a Federal, State, or local election in which the subject of the referral is a candidate." That means the office can't refer an investigation to the ethics panel between the beginning of September and Nov. 4 -- Election Day.

So theoretically, the OCE could launch some probes in July and August. But is that realistic? Before that can happen, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) must agree on the six board members who will run the office, and it's no easy task to get those two leaders to agree on anything.

"The Speaker will work in a bipartisan manner to appoint highly qualified individuals to serve on the Office of Congressional Ethics," said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami. "Delaying the process would serve neither the bipartisan majority of members of Congress who voted to create the outside ethics board, nor the demand by the American people for greater accountability and reform in Washington."

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said his boss -- who strongly opposed creating the ethics office, as did most Republicans -- would talk to Pelosi soon about how to proceed with appointing people to the OCE's board. "He certainly will not obstruct the process," Steel said.

In addition to reaching consensus on those six names and securing their agreement to serve on the board, Pelosi and Boehner also have to decide on allocating office space and a budget for the OCE. Then, once the six board members actually begin work, the board will have to interview and hire a staff of investigators, who in turn will have to give notice before leaving their current jobs, and so on.

With so much to do before the OCE can begin to function, the bottom line is that it would be something of a miracle if the office is really ready to start investigating members or staff in July or August. And by September, it will be too late to do anything before the election.

Of course, the existing Committee on Standards of Official Conduct could decide to start an investigation of Hurckes, or anyone else, without waiting for the new OCE to get its act together. But if recent history is any guide, the ethics committee probably won't do much unless the Hurckes story gets a lot more media attention or the Justice Department starts a probe (which appears unlikely, since the case appears to be more about potential violations of House rules rather than federal law).

Republicans have complained that the real problem with the ethics process is the committee itself, and Pelosi has said she is willing to start a dialogue with the GOP about reforming the panel. Perhaps those changes will be implemented right around the time the ethics office is ready to go to work -- next January.

By Ben Pershing  |  March 25, 2008; 5:26 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , House  
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Isn't it interesting how the Democrats make a big deal about there "Ethics" reform, when the reform itself isn't going to be effective until after the election? SO they can look great, and not have this new committee digging around into what might be unsavory stuff on the Democrats side.

Posted by: richard | March 26, 2008 9:37 AM | Report abuse

It is entirely predictable that a political body like the House would create an ethical watch-dog committee that was blind, had no teeth and was chained to it's dog house.

Ethics has never been the House's strong point. In spite of the calls by the public and by other House members to look into Administration wrongdoing, Speaker Pelosi has repeatedly said that she would not consider impeachment proceedings against the current occupant of the White House or any member of his cadre. This has emboldened the administration to push even farther into areas of imperialism than they ever would have before. Now, in spite of a clear and unassailable majority, the House has been able to do little to check the White House as its chief occupant bloviates and conflates it's way toward a third middle eastern war, this time with Iran.

It's small wonder that she would help craft legislation to deal with concerns that in recent years have decimated the ranks of the House Incumbents, sending many off to spend more time with their families (and lawyers), that has all the bluster and bombast of a Fourth of July picnic, without actually packing anything in the lunch basket.

Perhaps it's time for a new independent body to oversee concerns of ethical wrongdoing in the House, Senate and White House. One not tied to political re-appointment concerns but only with the interests of the Nation and the Constitution as it's mandate.

Hmmn.. Where to find such a body of independent people to Judge the manner in which the Executive and Legislative branches conduct themselves?

Posted by: Donald Davis | March 26, 2008 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Remember the fairy tale of the Wolf guarding the henhouse? More silly BS from Congress pretending to do something, while the press laps it up without question. So what's new? Then again, what has this Congress done with its time which which is dwindling rapidly away? (Remember the 'First hubdred days BS?) Not a whole lot except playing games to show how on the ball they are so people will once again vote for the only name they recognize on their ballott in November. And thats the way it usually is.

Posted by: KRitt from WA | March 27, 2008 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Just anither way for congress to waste more of the tax payers money. This makes about as much sense as having the defendant investigate himself.Stupid is as stupid does, and Nancy is as stupid as they come.

Posted by: Elmer | March 28, 2008 4:19 PM | Report abuse

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