Congress' New Watchmen

Former Reps. David Skaggs and Porter Goss were recently named co-chairs of the new Office of Congressional Ethics by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner. The office is meant to act as a way for private citizens to express complaints about the House to congressional members. The OCE is not planned to have subpoena power and will only serve to review complaints and forward them to the House Ethics Committee if it deems it necessary. TAP interviewed the co-chairs about their new jobs in the OCE.

Before his recent appointment to the OCE, David Skaggs headed Colorado's Department of Higher Education. Porter Goss started a national security consulting company and was director of the CIA before President Bush replaced him with Gen. Michael V. Hayden amid allegations of corruption by subordinates and mismanagement. Other members of the newly created office include former Reps. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Karan English, former House Chief Administrator Jay Eagan, and Allison Hayward, former chief of staff to Bradley Smith, a commissioner of the Federal Election Commission. Former Reps. Abner Mikva and Bill Frenzel are alternate board members.

Daniel Strauss: How will you two coordinate the leadership of the Office of Congressional Ethics?

David Skaggs: I think to some degree that's going to be a "we'll develop it as we go" proposition. Porter and I worked together when we were both members, he longer than I, but he was my chairman when I was on the Intelligence Committee, and I think we have a pretty good sense of our ability to work together.

Porter Goss: That's very much ditto for me. For this to work there has got to be a spirit of positive optimism and cooperation. Obviously, there's politics in anything that goes on in Washington, but to avoid the partisanship of those politics is the aim here. In order to enhance the capabilities, as the legislation says, of the Committee on Standards in the House, to have a proof system to perhaps get a better outcome. That's really what the legislation talks about.

Strauss: The board of the office is made up of ex-representatives. How will their background and experience as ex-representatives, both on the Democratic and Republican side, shape the office?

Skaggs: It's not entirely former members. Two of the members -- well one is a former chief administrative officer of the House and another, I'm not sure if Professor Hayward has any House staff experience, but I'm not sure about that, but she was on the Federal Election Commission staff, so we're not all former members. I think to the extent that six of the eight when you include the alternates Bill Frenzel and Ab Mikva, you know, there's got to be a commonsense element in the way one deals with these very problematic cases, and I think the experience and I hope the judgment that the six of us who have served the institution as members will bring to this task will enable us to do a better job for the American public as well as for the current members.

Goss: I think the confidence-building aspect of this was probably what the House leadership is after in some part, and I think that having some former members on the board gives us at least some people who have walked a mile in the shoes of the people who will be brought to attention of the board.

Strauss: To an extent, the OCE seems like a response to the failures of the House Ethics Committee. How is this office going to be different from the HEC?

Goss: I think in that debate we've had some people from outside of Congress saying, "There needs to be a way for us to file complaints, bring things to people's attention; there needs to be sort of a public window we can go up to in the House of Representatives and say, 'we think you ought to look at this' or 'this is serious and we want to file a complaint,' so against that you've got to balance the constitutional requirements of the conduct of Congress, which means you've got speech and debate and the other protections that no one other than presumably the members are supposed to deal with the conduct of members.

Skaggs: In addition to agreeing with Porter on what he's expressed, I'd say that this, I think, reflects an appreciation by the members of the House as well as the leadership that an additional increment for public accountability is appropriate these days, and they are looking for the right way to do that consistent with those constitutional prerogatives that the House needs to hold onto for judging its own members ultimately.

Goss: If I could just add I agree totally with that, and I think it's very important to point out that this is not a comment in any way on the present committee. ... I think there's going to be more evolution on process and ethics over the years. Of course, the Senate is going a different way, so I don't think there's a magic answer to this.

Strauss: What have been some instances in the past where the OCE would have been useful?

Skaggs: One, I really don't have a good example to cite, and if I did I'm afraid it would necessarily involve getting into a judgment about conduct, and that's exactly the sort of thing that we're going to be charged with doing and as impartial a way as we can and in confidence, and so I think I need to take a pass on that particular speculation.

Goss: I totally agree with that judgment. That's correct.

Strauss: How will you guys go about impartiality in individual cases?

Goss: My answer is the people will be asked to check their politics at the door and make the judgments on the merits of the case.

Skaggs: Really, our commitment to agreeing to do this entails that obligation. I also think because we're all human and imperfect there will be wisdom and impartiality that is derived from the collective judgment of six people who will bring in their experience and good sense into looking at what are almost always going to be difficult fact circumstances and figuring out whether a particular conduct has been on one side or the other on the line of proper behavior.

Strauss: Mr. Skaggs you're known as a rather bipartisan figure, and Mr. Goss you're known as a tougher partisan. How are you going to deal with those differences as co-chairs?

Skaggs: Let me make a preemptive strike on this one. First of all, to the extent that I tried to weigh in on behalf of a more collegial way of doing business in the house, I was doing that as a Democrat, not because I have no partisan blood in my veins, but I can also tell you that one of the best object lessons that I had while I was a member in the way members of the two parties can work together for the national interest was on the House Intelligence Committee, which, for part of the time I was on it, was lead by Mr. Goss, so we shouldn't conflate or suggest that there's a dichotomy between caring about bipartisanship and remaining about certain issues still people who have a point of view.

Goss: It's a fair question you ask, "Can we make distinction between partisan politics and doing the job in a political atmosphere?" And I have total confidence that Mr. Skaggs —that Chairman Skaggs can do that. I've worked with him, and I know for a fact that he can get the meat and potatoes on the plate without all the fanfare partisan politics there, and I believe that if you have made a fair rating in my most recent activities in public life that you would discover that I eschewed any partisan politics during my confirmation process for the intelligence work I did. It is true that I was working for a Republican administration, but I think you will find that there was absolutely no partisan politics or statements made or activities that might be, and I actually went to great lengths to prohibit that by all sides.

Skaggs: Maybe I wasn't absolutely black-and-white in what I said, but there is no qualifying or caveating aspect at all in my mind about our, that is Porter and [my], ability to work together on this and doing it in a way that doesn't get complicated by any partisan considerations.