House considering independent ethics panel

House leaders are creating a bipartisan task force on whether to establish an independent ethics panel to police the House, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.

Pelosi, D-Calif., said Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio has agreed to the idea. The task force has not been set up yet, but it will be expected to report back in March, she said.

Pelosi offered no details on what the outside ethics group might look like, saying that would be up to the task force.

"There is no question that the ethics process in the last couple of years has lost the confidence of the American people," Pelosi told a news conference. "I’m hopeful that it’s possible that we can have an outside entity that will restore that confidence."

Congress has been hit by a series of ethical black eyes, including the page scandal, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the bribery scandal that sent former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to prison.

The House ethics committee has been largely inactive throughout. It concluded last week that Republican lawmakers and aides failed for a decade to protect male pages from sexual come-ons by former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., but that no rules were broken and no one should be punished.

Establishment of a permanent outside enforcement entity has been a priority of ethics reformers, but such proposals have failed to become law in the past. In March, the Senate voted 67-30 to reject creation of an Office of Public Integrity to oversee ethics violations by lawmakers.

Among the no votes were incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who will head the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over ethics and lobbying.

Feinstein is concerned that an outside panel could be abused by people aiming to publicize grudges, spokesman Howard Gantman said. She will not include the proposal in ethics legislation she is introducing next month but is considering holding a hearing on such ideas.

Members of the Senate ethics committee have objected to an outside panel, saying they could investigate wrongdoing themselves. Some lawmakers also believe the Constitution gives members of Congress the responsibility to police themselves, not give the job to outsiders.

Some senators plan to revive the public integrity office idea next year, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrats Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Democrats have complained about a "Republican culture of corruption," a theme of November’s elections in which they wrested control of Congress from the GOP. They promised to vigorously pursue an ethics overhaul; Pelosi pledged to enact lobbying changes as part of her agenda for Congress’ first 100 legislative hours.

Proposals include banning lobbyist-paid meals and gifts and privately funded travel, forcing lobbyists to disclose more of their activities and requiring lawmakers and senior staff to wait two years instead of one to lobby their former colleagues after leaving Capitol Hill.

Democrats also want to make lawmakers disclose authorship of "earmarks," the home state spending projects often slipped into bills with little disclosure. Lawmakers would have to disclose any post-employment job negotiations.

Bills that would put in place some of these changes passed the House and Senate this year, but negotiators could not reach agreement on final legislation. The efforts were criticized as too weak by watchdog groups.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the ethics watchdog group Democracy 21, welcomed Pelosi’s proposal. "Unless we replace the current failed enforcement process with a new one, we face the same problem of ethics rules being ignored that we’ve seen in the past," he said.

For at least one of Pelosi’s House Democrats, her plan did not go far enough.

"I would conclude that the study process is unnecessary," said Rep. Mike Castle, D-Del., contending an outside enforcement entity should be offered as part of Pelosi’s first 100 hours. "My goal is to make this ethics process as strong as possible, and that doesn’t include studies — it only includes action."

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press