Over the past two days The Hill and Congressional Quarterly have reported that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) intends to allow outside groups to file ethics complaints against members of Congress. This would be a restoration of the policy that was abolished in 1997. Since 1997 only sitting members of Congress have been allowed to file ethics complaints. This policy led to an ethics truce between the two parties where an ethics complaint to the Committee by one party would result in retaliation by the opposing party. The truce has effectively shut down all internal accountability in the House of Representatives. Allowing citizens and organizations to take part in the ethics process in Congress is not only a sensible way to engage the public in yet another part of government but it also is a good policy in terms of reducing ethics violations and corruption.
Since the truce went into effect five sitting congressmen have been indicted, Rep. Jim Traficant, Rep. Tom DeLay, Rep. Duke Cunningham, Rep. Bob Ney, and now, Rep. William Jefferson. Aside from DeLay, who was censured by the ethics committee for activities separate from his subsequent indictment, none of these indicted members of Congress were subject to an ethics inquiry. The allegations, later proved true, against Cunningham had been reported for months by the press yet there was no ethics inquiry. The same goes for the current case against Rep. Jefferson. There was also no investigation into the wrongdoing of members involved with criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. If citizens and outisde organizations could present ethics complaints Congress would likely have a better public image right now.
Some members of Congress are worried that allowing citizens and organizations to file complaints will open up the process to partisan politics. These members clearly ignore the fact that the current process is frozen because of partisan politics. Speaker Pelosi has a decent proposal that ought to assuage these members' concerns. Her plan is to create "a panel of four congressional outsiders … to decide which complaints merit investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct". Two members would be chosen by Pelosi and two would be chosen by Minority Leader John Boehner. This panel would be able to determine which complaints were simply partisan nonsense and which complaints deserve a fair hearing. This policy is definitely a huge step up from the ridiculous policy of nonaction currently in place while giving citizens more power to watchdog Congress is an active manner.