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Public Statements

Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006--Continued

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I thank Senator Collins, not only for her accommodation but also for her leadership on this issue. I also thank Senator Lieberman for his outstanding work on this issue.

I rise today to speak about the importance of improving the ethics enforcement process that we currently have. Last month I introduced legislation to create an outside congressional ethics enforcement commission that would be staffed by former judges and former Members of Congress from both parties. Under my proposal, any citizen could report a possible ethics violation by lawmakers, staff, or lobbyists. My commission would have had 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-Senate ethics committees.

I knew this proposal would not be the most popular one that I introduced in Congress, but I didn't anticipate the deafening silence that greeted it. Change is difficult and Members of Congress are understandably concerned about delegating investigations of their own conduct to an outside body, but I hope, when my colleagues learn a little more about the amendment I am offering with Senators COLLINS, LIEBERMAN, and MCCAIN, that they will understand an independent ethics factfinding body is not only a good idea but a necessary idea.

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Minority Leader to take a lead role in crafting ethics legislation. I was glad to assume that role because I believe that the foundation of our democracy is the credibility that the American people have in the legitimacy of their Government. Unfortunately, over the past few years, that legitimacy has been questioned because of the scandals we have here in Washington.

But one of the greatest travesties of these scandals is not what Congress did, but what it didn't do.

Because for all the noise we have 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 staffers, we have 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 are now seeing splashed across the front pages. And the sad truth is that the House ethics process does not inspire public confidence that Congress can serve as an effective watchdog over its own Members.

Time and time again over the past few years, the House Ethics Committee has looked the other way in the face of seemingly obvious wrongdoing, which has the effect of encouraging more wrongdoing. In those few instances when the committee has taken action, its leadership was punished, and it ceased to become an effective body. Coupled with a Federal Election Commission that was deliberately structured to produce deadlock, this has produced a dangerous outcome in the words of one outside observer:

When everyone in Washington knows the agency that is supposed to enforce campaign finance laws is not going to do it and the ethics committees are moribund, you create a situation where there is no sheriff. You end up in the Wild West, and that's the context we've been operating under in recent years.

Without question, the Senate ethics process is far superior, and I commend my colleagues who have served--and continue to serve--selflessly and tirelessly on the Senate Ethics Committee. Indeed, I have the greatest respect for Senator VOINOVICH and Senator JOHNSON. They have done an outstanding job in a difficult task. They are two of the finest people I have had the pleasure to serve with since I arrived in the Senate.

But here's the sad reality. No matter how well our process works here in the Senate, it doesn't really matter since the American people perceive the entire ethics system--House and Senate--to be broken. Our constituents, unfortunately, do not distinguish between the bodies in their opinion of Congress. And as long as our credibility is stained by the actions--and inactions--of the other body, then the legitimacy of what we do is also called into question.

With all due respect to my colleagues on the Senate Ethics Committee, there's some good reason for the American people to be skeptical of our enforcement system. After all, we in the Senate are our own judge, jury, and prosecutor. Under the current system, Members investigating their colleagues are caught in a bind. Either they investigate and become vulnerable to the allegation that they are prosecuting a Member for political reasons or they do not investigate and it looks like they are just covering up for a colleague. That investigation trigger has to be depoliticized for the good of Members and the integrity of the process.

And so, 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.

That's why I come to the floor today to support this amendment for an Office of Public Integrity. The office is the next critical step in the evolution of ethics enforcement in the Senate and vital to restoring the American people's faith in Congress.

This amendment doesn't have quite the same level of independence as the outside commission that I proposed setting up. But it does have much more independence than the current system, and for that reason I wholeheartedly endorse it and am proud to be a cosponsor.

The Office of Public Integrity established in this amendment would provide a voice that cannot be silenced by political pressures. It would have the power to initiate independent investigations and bring its findings to the Ethics Committees in a transparent manner. Final authority to act on these findings would remain with the members of the Ethics Committees, which would satisfy constitutional concerns.

Currently, in both the House and the Senate, the initial determination of whether to open an investigation has often resulted in a game of mutually assured destruction--you don't investigate Members of my party, and I won't investigate Members of your party.

But what's interesting is that while there is often great disagreement and sometimes even deadlock in the decision to open an investigation, there's usually general agreement on what the final judgment and punishment should be. That's because the development of a full factual record can convince even the most ardent partisan that a Member of his own party should be disciplined.

In this sense, the OPI proposal is an admirable attempt to reform the most troublesome aspect of the current ethics process while still retaining what works about it. Under this proposal, Ethics Committee members would be relieved of the most difficult part of their duties, which will make it easier for members to serve on the Ethics Committees and easier for them to carry out their responsibilities.

Most importantly, it would add much-needed credibility to the outcome of the process itself. By having the courage to delegate the investigative function to an Office of Public Integrity, the U.S. Senate would be sending the message that we have confidence in ourselves and our ability to abide by the rules. That would be an important signal to send to the American people.

To put this in some historical context, a similar approach was endorsed by a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress that was cochaired by Congressmen Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, and DAVID DREIER, a Repulblican, in 1997. Representatives Hamilton and DREIER recommended the establishment of an independent body to supplement ethics investigations through fact finding. Had that recommendation been embraced by the House then, it is possible that the recent House scandals could have been averted.

In the Senate, similar proposals have been suggested over the years by Senators BOND, GRASSLEY, and LOTT, as well as former Senator Helms. And state legislatures in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida, among others, have established mechanisms to allow for independent input into ethics enforcement.

Today, it's time for the Senate to take the lead, the same way it took the lead in creating the first congressional Ethics Committee in the 1960s.

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.

I commend, once again, Senators COLLINS and LIEBERMAN for their outstanding work in the committee. I strongly urge my colleagues to support their amendment.

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