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Time to Hold Congress Accountable

Our founding fathers foresaw the need for integrity and trust in doing the people's business. James Madison said it best in the Federalist Papers (No. 57). In addressing the ethical behavior expected of those elected to Congress, he said that the first requirement was to elect those ''who possess most wisdom to discern" and "most virtue to serve the common good of society." He said further that what was needed most were "effective precautions for keeping them (representatives) virtuous while they continue to hold their public trust."

Fast-forward to today's congressional scandal, stemming from the indictment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, accused of illegal activities. While the scandal looms larger and larger with each passing day, the ethics committees in the House and Senate are not committed to any investigation of the mounting and egregious revelations about ''favors" arranged by Abramoff for lawmakers on behalf of his clients. This raises the same question that I raised in the House in.1988 with my Democratic colleague, Rep. Barney Frank - whether members of the House and Senate can effectively investigate and discipline their colleagues. I believe that the situation in the House, especially, with the shocking revelations about Tom DeLay, his wife, staff and friends, in and outside of the House, makes clear that congressional self-policing has not worked and will never work.

Eighteen years ago, on Aug. 21, 1988, Frank and 1 held a press conference in Washington. Following eight months of hard and creative work with our staffs, representing opposite ends of the political spectrum on most issues, Frank and I had just introduced House Resolution 526, calling for the creation of an independent Public Review Board to investigate alleged wrongdoing by members of the House. I said that a new approach to the ethics process in Congress was required to respond to the widespread public perception that members of the House and Senate were not fulfilling their public trust. Further, I said that since Congress was a collegial, closely knit body of 535 members, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the members to change their roles radically and become prosecutors and judges of their peers. Frank said that our resolution represented "an effort to reconcile the requirements of the Constitution with the inherent conflict that comes with judging your friends - or enemies," by revising, not eliminating, the role of the Ethics Committee, as currently constituted. I added that the legislation "was not a matter of partisan politics, but of process."

I strongly believe that the time has come for the leadership of both parties to introduce and pass the provisions of House Resolution 526. (One section of the bill, calling for the creation of an inspector general in the House, was passed in 1996.) Under our proposal to change the rules of the House, a Public Review Board would be established, including three officials chosen by the speaker and three by the minority leader. These officials, none of whom may be former or current members of Congress, would serve for up to 10 years after their selection was approved by the House. The Public Review Board would have the power to fully investigate and subpoena members alleged to have committed ethical wrongdoings. The board would convey its findings to the Ethics Committee, which would be required to forward the recommendations to the full House for consideration. (In accordance with the Constitution, only the full House has the power to take action against a member of Congress.)

Two years ago, Congress passed stringent rules, under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, to bring objectivity, fairness and transparency to the governance of publicly traded corporations in order to enhance public confidence in the stock market. Similarly, only the establishment of a truly independent body capable of ensuring fair and proper investigations into alleged ethical violations by members of the House and Senate can erase, once and for all, the pervasive public perception that protecting the public trust is a distant second to covering up unethical or felonious behavior by government officials.

This Article was Originally Published in The Journal News

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