Dems put ethics rules at top of agenda

US Capitol Building

KAI RYSSDAL: It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Just not anybody in Congress. The New York Times reported this morning Democrats are thinking about setting up an external ethics panel. It's not a new idea. The old Congress considered — and soundly rejected — an Office of Public Integrity. The Democrats campaigned on promises to clean up the Washington swamp. And the election winners are eager to enforce new restrictions on gifts and perks lawmakers can accept. Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports from Washington.


JOHN DIMSDALE: Many members of Congress jealously defend what they say is their constitutional right to police their own ranks. Traditionally they've relied on their own ethics committees — to hold themselves accountable. But those committees have been criticized for not enforcing existing rules — most recently for last week's decision not to punish anyone for former Congressman Mark Foley's conduct.

Former House counsel Stan Brand says an outside ethics panel would be more likely to take action.

STAN BRAND: The concept, from what I've seen, is to staff this entity with former federal judges and people of stature in the legal community, who will independently look at these allegations and decide whether they merit further review by the committee.

Democratic congressional leaders promise to beef up bans on gifts and meals and travel paid for by lobbyists. Some prohibitions exist, but studies by Marketplace and others have found the rules are often ignored and disclosure requirements rarely enforced.

Lobbyists worry that an outside watchdog will go after them — rather than the real culprits. Paul Miller is the president of the American League of Lobbyists.

PAUL MILLER: The problem me and a lot of others in this profession have is members of Congress seem to be pointing their fingers at lobbyists. This is not just a lobbying issue. This is an issue that has more members of Congress going to prison and indicted, than there are lobbyists.

Democrats say ethics reforms will be one of the first orders of business when the new Congress convenes in January.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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