Monday, March 3, 2008

Boehner Column: Congressional Priorities: Relief for High Living Costs, Restoring Trust of the American People

Drive anywhere in the 8th District these days and you’ll notice the price of gas from Piqua down to West Chester hovering right around $3.19 a gallon. That’s a lot to pay to fill up your vehicle, and despite promises made two years ago, lawmakers now in charge in Congress are doing nothing to lower these costs.

Middle class families and small businesses are both feeling the squeeze from high energy prices and other costs of living. But a bill passed in the U.S. House recently that I voted against could actually made energy prices more expensive. This legislation does nothing to decrease our dependence on foreign energy sources because it doesn’t produce a single watt, barrel or gallon of new domestic energy. What it would do is raise taxes on producers of energy here at home, send good-paying jobs overseas increasing local energy costs. Worse yet, it actually carves out tax breaks for Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez – courtesy of your tax dollars.

This is unacceptable.

The House also voted down a Republican proposal to make permanent two key tax relief initiatives in the 2001 and 2003 tax relief laws – the expanded child credit and marriage penalty relief – that would have given struggling middle class families some relief from high costs of living. The Republican proposal would also have removed the provisions in the legislation that provides tax breaks for Chavez’s CITGO energy company and raises taxes on millions of Americans.

I was disappointed to see the House vote against tax relief for middle class American families at the same time as the largest tax increase in our history is on the horizon. Congress’ priority should be protecting our families, not enriching a foreign dictator.

While we focus on protecting our middle class families, we must also rebuild the bonds of trust between Congress and the American people. This should be among the highest priorities in Congress. Simply put, Americans have every right to expect the highest ethical standards from the men and women sent here to represent them.

The House ethics process simply doesn’t work, and that’s been true for several years now. I joined with Speaker Nancy Pelosi a year ago in appointing a bipartisan task force of respected members to recommend steps to improve ethics enforcement. As a result of their work, I’m more convinced than ever that if the ethics committee isn’t functioning properly, we should fix it — not layer on top of it a new bureaucracy that stands between members of Congress and entities such as the Department of Justice and the FBI. But that’s just what the Democratic leadership’s proposal does.

Instead of providing a new way for Congress to sweep its mess under the rug, we should focus on fixing the problems that have led to the total loss of confidence in the ethics committee: unending partisan gridlock, a lack of meaningful deadlines for action and the high level of secrecy that surrounds every aspect of the ethics committee’s investigative work.

The desire for a functioning ethics committee is shared by members on both sides of the aisle. Let me highlight three key aspects of our Republican plan:

1. Trust the Department of Justice and the FBI. The House ethics committee is a toothless body that has been paralyzed for years by partisan gridlock. It is a black hole where complaints are filed, never to be seen or heard of again. That’s why our ethics reform plan requires the House ethics committee to refer any matters not resolved within 90 days to the FBI and the Department of Justice. The American people trust the DOJ and the FBI to conduct thorough and effective investigations. Furthermore, in the past few years, the DOJ’s public integrity division has been very active in investigating allegations of public corruption, and it only makes sense to enlist their help when the ethics committee refuses to act.

2. Let in the light on ethics investigations. The House ethics committee is shadowed in secrecy, and very little information about investigations is made public. This lack of transparency has allowed the committee to hide behind a smokescreen of uncertainty. House Republicans want to bring more transparency to Congress, and the ethics process is an important place to start. Our plan requires the House ethics committee to release a monthly public report on its investigative activities. These reports will list all new allegations and any actions taken by the committee to investigate them, with appropriate safeguards that strike a balance between protecting the rights of the accused and informing the public about the progress of the investigation. This public disclosure will also keep the committee accountable and encourage it to act quickly.

3. Get the American people involved. The House ethics committee closed its door to the American people years ago by not allowing the public to submit allegations of ethical violations by members of Congress and staff. Our plan opens the door to public scrutiny by empowering the House inspector general to receive information from the public about alleged misconduct and transmit that information to the committee. Our plan will allow those who submit information to track what happened with it in the committee’s monthly reports.

Our goal is real reform of the ethics process and a system that makes it harder, not easier, for problems to be swept under the rug by Congress. Our proposal puts real teeth into congressional ethics enforcement. The American people have every right to expect the highest ethical standards from their Congress. And they have a right to expect an honest debate, and an honest choice, as we strive to restore trust between the American people and their elected leaders.

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