WASHINGTON -- Toughening ethics laws, once a priority of Democrats, has bogged down in Congress as party leaders find their campaign promises colliding with lawmakers' reelection concerns.
Two months have passed since a task force was supposed to have recommended how an independent panel might look into ethics complaints before they go to the House ethics committee. A key sticking point is opposition in both parties to letting outsiders file complaints against members of Congress.
Currently, only House members can initiate an ethics probe. Public watchdog groups call the restriction self-serving and unreasonable.
Some of the same groups, however, are balking at a second proposal floated by task force members. It would require any group that lodges an ethics complaint against a House member to reveal its donors.
Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, said the demand for donor lists from groups that file complaints "is what has tied this thing up for now."
The nonprofit groups call it intimidation. Lawmakers say it is a way to ascertain whether such groups are backed by right- or left-leaning forces with partisan motives.
Meanwhile, a Senate spat over rules governing senators' requests for special projects in their home states is blocking efforts to merge into one bill separate House- and Senate-passed measures to restrict lawmakers' dealings with lobbyists. The Senate passed its version in January, and the House passed its bill in May.
"I find it distressing that they haven't dealt with these issues," Craig Holman of Public Citizen said, referring particularly to the House task force.
For years, self-described government-reform groups have denounced the House ethics committee, which is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, as listless and largely toothless.
Unlike the Senate ethics committee, the House panel no longer accepts complaints from nonmembers. And it sometimes says little or nothing about its inquiries, leaving the public unsure whether serious investigations took place.
On Jan. 31, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, appointed a bipartisan task force to recommend whether an independent panel of nonmembers should investigate ethics complaints and play a role in enforcing rules of conduct. That report was due May 1.
Long past the deadline, task force members privately briefed colleagues on a plan in which the speaker and minority leader would each appoint three members to a panel that would look at complaints -- from members or nonmembers -- and recommend whether the House ethics committee should pursue them.
The proposal immediately drew fire from seemingly every direction.
"They have problems inside and outside," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the House task force, said its tentative recommendation to consider ethics complaints from outside groups remains a sticking point.
"We've had some push-back" from House members and outsiders, he said in an interview last week. "We're plugging ahead. The goal is to get something meaningful that can pass."
Capuano added, however, that he could not predict whether the task force could settle on a plan that would win House approval.