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December 19, 2006
Buck Passing As An Art Form

One of the more egregious developments of the Watergate era has been the rise of the "independent investigator". Having burned both parties, one might expect such constructs to fall out of favor in Washington, but that would underestimate the desire of politicians to shirk responsibility for difficult tasks. An unsigned OpinionJournal editorial today covers the proposed expansion of the buck-passing state:

Congressional mores could certainly use an upgrade, but it pays to beware of reformers promising to clean up politics by letting someone else do the dirty work. Exhibit A is the strange new enthusiasm for an "independent" office of public integrity for Congress.

One warning sign is that the proposal is being marketed by the same folks who gave us "independent counsels" such as Lawrence Walsh and Ken Starr for the executive branch, as well as the glories of "campaign finance reform." Instead of the current practice of having complaints against Members vetted by the House and Senate Ethics Committees, the idea is to create a new outside body to do the work for Congress. To her credit, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi hasn't let the browbeating by the usual goo-goo editorial pages intimidate her, and has suggested a task force to study the idea.

A better name for such an "independent" ethics body would be the office of public buck-passing, because it would allow Congress to spare itself the heavy political lifting of judging colleagues. Handing over that duty to outsiders would make Congress less politically accountable, not more, while creating a whole new set of political problems and disputes.

This kind of effort sounds great -- in theory. In a town that too often sees politicians act to protect partisans of their own tribe, the kind of Deus Ex Machina of an "independent" commission or investigator promises a pure form of politics. Instead of acting in the favor of beholden interests, the theory goes, it will follow the clues and pursue the policies that the evidence illuminates.

Unfortunately, the American experience over the past thirty years shows that when commissions and investigations shake loose those political ties, they also free themselves from accountability. Time after time, these panels and investigators expand far beyond their mandate and transform themselves into self-perpetuating monstrosities -- so much so that their original mandate sometimes falls by the wayside. Patrick Fitzgerald's probe into the supposed leak of the identity of Valerie Plame, later admitted by Richard Armitage, is a classic case in point, although both Democrats and Republicans can point to outrageous witch hunts on both sides over the last couple of decades.

Congress has oversight over the executive branch, and the executive branch has the authority to investigate malfeasance by legislators. Neither want the responsibility, however, of conducting such investigations in case they blow up in someone's face, so they outsource it to crusaders and busybodies. When the investigation collapses, the elected representatives can simply shrug their shoulders and refuse any responsibility for the damage caused by it.

We need our elected officials to take responsibility for their mandates and to quit passing the buck, especially on ethics. We do not need a star chamber of unelected officials to mete out punishments to our representatives; if the current batch of Congresspeople and Senators can't handle self-government, then how in hell can we trust them to govern us? Congress need to bring accountability back into the process, before the notion of government by unelected appointees threatens the entire notion of representative democracy. That goes for ethics, criminal investigations, and development of policies as well.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 19, 2006 6:49 AM

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