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Mum's the word for ethics committee

By Tom Foreman
CNN

Programming note: Watch Tom Foreman's report on what Americans think about their congressmen's ethics on "Anderson Cooper 360," 10 p.m. ET Thursday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Indictments, investigations, a resignation -- and now a top lobbyist has struck a deal to tell his presumably sordid tale to prosecutors. It's enough to rattle the handcuffs of even a convicted official.

The past year was a tough one for ethics in Congress, and the coming year may be worse. So why is the House ethics committee so steadfastly silent?

Blame it on a deal made in the mid-1990s. That's when, by many accounts, House Democrats and Republicans were each convinced that the opposing party was using ethics charges for unfair political attacks. So both parties agreed to a truce. (Watch how legislators are trying to scrub their image -- 1:45)

"Everybody knew about it," says former Democratic Congressman Chris Bell of Texas. "There was never any formal agreement between the two parties, but it just came to be known that you don't file a complaint against anyone on our side and we won't file a complaint against anyone on your side."

Unlike the Senate, the House forbids ethics complaints from outsiders, so hardly a whisper has been heard from the committee as ethical, even criminal, complaints have rained down on House members.

Five Democrats and five Republicans sit on the committee, and both parties say they want to restore ethical standards in the Capitol, but the committee has had nothing to say about the spate of recent ethical troubles. That has political activists on both the left and the right saying the ethics truce itself is unethical.

They are making rare alliances with each other to lobby Congress on the matter. Conservative Tom Fitton is the president of Judicial Watch. "We're in a coalition of many groups," he says, "some from the far left, all concerned about congressional ethics reform. It's not a matter of Republicans versus Democrats, or liberals versus conservatives. It's a matter of crooks versus the rest of us!"

Melanie Sloan, a liberal, disagrees with Fitton about almost everything, except this. "It's a total disaster," she says. As head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, she is used to fighting hopeless causes, but she is digging in with her conservative allies to force reform of the ethics committee.

"It needs to be repaired quickly so that the American people can have some confidence in the institution of the House of Representatives," she says.

CNN contacted the ethics committee and was told congressional rules forbid them from discussing much of what they do publicly, and some of the corrective measures they take against members are properly private.

They acknowledge that the committee has not been a hotbed of activity for quite awhile. However, they point out that the committee is being given more funds for investigations, a bigger staff, and a promise of improvement is in the air.

Still, some critics argue Congress has done such a terrible job of policing itself, it should just give up and appoint a panel of ex-judges to consider ethical lapses and present findings to the entire Congress for a public vote.

It's not likely, Fitton says. "The leadership of both parties don't want an ethics committee with bite," he says. Bell, the former congressman, adds, "You're dealing with a body that you basically have to force over a cliff if you want to get anything done."

Bell lost his congressional seat after redistricting in Texas, and then he broke the ethics truce: He filed a complaint against Republican Tom DeLay. The ethics committee admonished Delay, who is now under indictment. But then the committee went after Bell, too, suggesting his complaint about DeLay smacked of politics, and it might damage the ethical reputation of Congress.

CNN's Jim Spellman contributed to this report.

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