Key senators back new ethics panel


WASHINGTON -- Two key senators began their bipartisan push yesterday to create an office of public integrity, a proposal that would significantly alter the way Congress investigates itself.

Under the measure sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who leads the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Connecticut's Joseph I. Lieberman, the panel's ranking Democrat, the new office could initiate probes of House and Senate members suspected of ethical violations.

Whether the provision has the votes to pass the Senate is unclear, as are its prospects in the House. The chambers traditionally jealously guard their prerogatives and both follow their own rules for ethics and dealings with lobbyists.

But both are also under pressure to toughen these guidelines, especially since lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to attempting to bribe members of Congress. And Collins' support for a new process to investigate ethics complaints improves the chances that change will occur, given that Senate Republican leaders chose her to spearhead reform efforts.

Under the current system, each chamber's ethics committee is responsible for such investigations, which the panels can launch on their own or in response to complaints by lawmakers. The Senate committee also accepts complaints by outside parties.

Government watchdog groups, as well as some lawmakers, complain that the system falls short because most members of Congress are loath to investigate one of their own. They also say partisan disputes sometimes paralyze the committees, noting that the House's ethics panel has not examined a single case for more than a year.

The Collins-Lieberman proposal seeks to overcome these problems by establishing an independent, professional staff that would investigate lawmakers, acting either on its own or at the request of others. If the office of public integrity found that allegations had merit, it would turn over its findings to the House or Senate ethics committee for action.

In a statement, Collins said, "There is a real tension between the notion that Congress is responsible for setting and enforcing its own rules and the practical reality of trying to do so."

The public integrity office, she said, "would help to promote public confidence in the enforcement process."

The bill containing the proposal is expected to win approval from Collins' committee today. The measure, which will include other reform measures, could come to the Senate floor as early as next week.

The bill calls for the director of the new office to be appointed with the consent of the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader and the minority leaders of both chambers. The office also would oversee financial disclosure and other reports filed by lawmakers and the aides, as well as disclosure reports filed by lobbyists. Its budget would be supplied by Congress.

The office would have the power to issue subpoenas and to take testimony under oath from witnesses in ethics cases. It also could hold those who refused to cooperate with its investigations in contempt of Congress.

Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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