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Remarks of Senator Barack Obama Ethics Commission Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

Remarks of Senator Barack Obama Ethics Commission Press Conference

I'd like to thank Judge Wilhoit for being here today to share with us some of the progress they've made in Kentucky as a result of the ethics reforms that have taken place in that state.

You know, one of the greatest travesties of the scandal that's plagued Washington is not what Congress did, but what it didn't do.

Because for all the noise we've heard from the media about the bribes accepted by Congressman Duke Cunningham, the thousands of dollars in free meals accepted by other congressmen, and the "K Street Project" that filled lobbying firms with former Republican staffers, we've heard only silence from the very place that should have caught these ethics violations in the first place - the House Ethics Committee.

For years now, it's been common knowledge that this committee has largely failed in its responsibility to investigate and bring to light the kind of wrongdoing between Members of Congress and lobbyists that we're now seeing splashed across the front pages. And the sad truth is that neither the House nor the Senate ethics process inspires public confidence that Congress can serve as an effective watchdog over its own Members.

All of this means that in the coming weeks, we can pass all the ethics reforms we want - gift bans, travel bans, lobbying restrictions - but none of them will make a difference if there isn't a nonpartisan, independent body that will help us enforce those laws. You don't crack down on crime by hoping criminals will turn themselves in, and you can't clean up corruption by trusting Congress to police itself.

That's why I've recently introduced legislation that would create a Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission to act as the American public's watchdog over Congress. This proposed Commission would be staffed with former judges and former Members of Congress from both parties, and it would allow any citizen to report a possible ethics violation by lawmakers, staff, or lobbyists.

The Commission would have the authority to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, gather records, call witnesses, and provide its full public report to the Department of Justice or the House and Senate Ethics Committees.

This would improve the current process in two ways. First, it would take politics out of the initial fact-finding phase of ethics investigations. Second, it would exert greater public pressure on Congress, which would retain the ultimate authority to punish any wrongdoing.

The idea of an independent body to conduct initial investigations of ethics violations is not new, as similar commissions have been formed in Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky, which the Judge will tell us about shortly.

On the national level, a similar proposal was also suggested in 1997 by Representative David Dreier, a Republican, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, who I'm happy to say has endorsed this current legislation as well. Today, this idea has support from a wide range of organizations and scholars across the political spectrum, from Common Cause to Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

It's my hope that we can build bipartisan support for this proposal in the weeks to come. In the end, the true test of ethics reform is not whether we pass a set of laws that appeal to a lowest common denominator that we can all agree on, it's whether we pass the strongest bill with the strongest reforms possible that can truly change the way we do business in Washington. That's what the American people will be watching for, and that's what we owe them. Enforcing the laws we pass is a crucial step toward reaching this goal and restoring the public's faith in a government that stands up for their interests and respects their values.
Senator Barack Obama has proposing the creation of a Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission to receive complaints from the public on alleged ethics violations by members of Congress, staff, and lobbyists. The Commission would have authority to investigate complaints and present public findings of fact about possible violations to the House and Senate Ethics Committee and Justice Department. This proposal, which is endorsed by Common Cause and Norm Ornstein, is modeled after similar state commissions in Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee.

* The Commission would be comprised of nine Commissioners chosen by the leaders of Congress. Four of the Commissioners must be former federal judges, and four must be former members of Congress.
* During their service, Commissioners would be prohibited from serving as a fundraiser for a Senate or House candidate, contributing to a candidate for federal office, serving as an officer in a political party, acting as a registered lobbyist, and participating in the management or conduct of a political campaign.

Investigative Powers

* In conducting its investigations of alleged violations, the Commission would have the authority to issue subpoenas, compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents, and take depositions.
* All Commission proceedings, including the initial complaint, would remain confidential until a final determination is made.
* Following a preliminary investigation of a complaint, the Commission would have several options: dismiss the complaint; confidentially inform the alleged violator of potential violations and provide information to ensure future compliance with the law; or upon a majority vote, initiate an adjudicatory proceeding to determine whether to present a case to the House and Senate Ethics Committee or the Department of Justice.
* The House and Senate Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice would retain the ultimate authority to discipline members of Congress.

Frivolous Complaints
To avoid manipulation of the Commission for political purposes, any person filing a complaint that they knew to be false would be subject to a $10,000 fine and up to one year in jail. That person also would be barred from filing any future complaints. No complaints could be filed against a member of Congress in the three months prior to an election to ensure that complaints are not filed for political purposes.

What People Have Been Saying about Obama's Legislation

We believe that this legislation would do more to reform ethics and lobbying than any other piece of legislation introduced thus far because it goes to the heart of the problem: enforcement.
-- Chellie Pingree, President, Common Cause

This approach to ethics enforcement is just the kind of balanced and reasonable alternative we need. Enforcement of ethics in Congress needs independence and credibility to all, but cannot become either a vehicle for the criminalization of policy differences or an avenging angel like the Independent Counsel statute created. This commission would have on it people of integrity and institutional sensitivity, and could serve to educate members and staff about ethical behavior and performance while also providing vigorous and credible enforcement of ethical standards. It deserves strong bipartisan support.
-- Norm Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute

Given this deplorable situation, Public Citizen applauds Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for having the courage to challenge the business-as-usual environment on Capitol Hill and introduce far-reaching legislation that would establish a Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission, made up of people outside Congress but appointed by House and Senate leaders. The commission would be a much-needed independent and non-partisan watchdog charged with monitoring and enforcing compliance to the nation's ethics and lobbying laws.
-- Public Citizen

This bill effectively addresses the fundamental problem of ethics regulation in Congress- - the ultimate conflict of interest in which members have total control over every part of the process by which they judge one another. The bill would provide a measure of independent judgment, which is necessary to make the final judgments that Congress reaches more credible. It would also discourage politically motivated ethics charges. None of the other reforms that have been proposed will make much difference unless they are accompanied by this kind of change in the process of enforcement. This bill would strengthen the essential constitutional principle that James Madison emphasized: "a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time."
-- Dennis F. Thompson, Professor of Government, Harvard University; and author of "Ethics in Congress"

This is the first bill that deals seriously with the lack of oversight and enforcement in the existing congressional ethics process. Senator Obama has listened to the concerns of watchdog organizations and has addressed them. This bill will help restore Americans' confidence in the integrity of Congress.
-- Melanie Sloan, Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

The Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission Act represents a genuine and constitutional attempt to rejuvenate and further professionalize the legislative self-disciplinary process. Its enactment would achieve a proper balance between diminishing the potential for political exploitation of the system and according appropriate safeguards and due process to respondents, all of which would increase public confidence in the congressional self-disciplinary power.
-- Stanley M. Brand, Esq., Brand Law Group

Senator Obama's excellent reform is about improving enforcement and transparency which is desperately needed in Washington right now. He proposes to bring an objective, nonpartisan approach to evaluating the link between lobbyists and Members of Congress, something the Ethics Committees have failed to do. Senator Obama has taken the lead in cleaning up Washington with his three reform bills.
-- James A. Thurber, Director and Distinguished Professor, Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, American University

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