Mike Capuano: The Pragmatic Reformer

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House Financial Services Committee member Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., who is running for the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is seen on Capitol Hill, Oct. 22, 2009, during the committee's markup on pending legislation. (AP)
House Financial Services Committee member Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., is seen on Capitol Hill, Oct. 22, 2009, during the committee's markup on pending legislation. Many credit Capuano's "insider" status with his success in creating an independent body to police the behavior of the members of the House. (AP)

In his nearly 11 years in office, U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano has one major achievement — creating an independent body to police the behavior of the members of the House of Representatives. If he wins the special election to fill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat, Capuano would like to do the same for the Senate. Here's a look at how Capuano passed the unpopular measure.

When Mike Capuano was elected to the House of Representatives, no one outside of Congress could file an ethics complaint about a sitting congressperson. So, it was up to House members to investigate each other. And for the most part, they didn't.

"They basically had a truce," said Sarah Dufendach, from Common Cause, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C. "The Republicans were: We won't file on you if you don't file on us. And the Democrats were like: OK, we won't file on you if you don't file on us. And there was a period of time where the ethics committee did virtually no work."

So Dufendach and other reformers were ecstatic in 2006 when the new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, promised to clean up Congress. But Dufendach was surprised when Pelosi named her choice to head up her ethics reform task force: Mike Capuano.

"It was a little bit of like, errrr — who?" Dufendach remembered.

Capuano wasn't a go-to guy for reformers. In fact, watchdogs saw Capuano as a well-connected congressman with ties to special interest groups — mostly trial lawyers and defense contractors — but no record of wrongdoing.

Craig Holman, from the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Capuano is the consummate insider.

"Capuano knew how to play the game of money and politics," Holman said. "He knows how to do fundraising, he knows how to do earmarks for political advantage and he plays that game all the way."

Capuano has never identified himself as a reformer. "I don't think that I have a lock on what is moral or ethical," he said. "And I don't want to be the one who passes judgment. That's not who I am."

But Capuano is a stickler for rules and, as a career politician, he was very concerned about the perception of members of Congress by the outside world.

"I do want the process to be seen as fair and transparent," Capuano said.

He started his work by calling someone who could help craft a new ethics process: Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. To hear Ornstein tell it, Capuano was highly skeptical of him and his colleagues.

Despite Capuano's aggressive style, he and Ornstein found common ground. They agreed that complaints against legislators could be filed with an independent body. Where they did not agree was that Ornstein and other reformers wanted that independent body to have more power — namely, the ability to subpoena records and force witnesses to testify.

Capuano argued that this would never fly with the majority of the members of Congress.

And he was right. His more limited version of the measure passed by one vote. Reformers give Capuano credit because he knew how far he could push his colleagues.

Ethics watchdog Sarah Dufendach came to think Capuano was a brilliant choice for the job. "He absolutely believed in the mission that the speaker gave him," she said. "Because he wasn't seen as this fire-breathing reformer, he was able to get members on board with this change" that they would otherwise have been skeptical of.

As is always the case in politics, not everyone in the U.S. House of Representatives was happy with the solution. Some Republicans and Democrats alike find the independent body intrusive. Some reformers thought that Capuano gave up too much.

Now everyone's watching to see what the new Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, will do. Started in 2009, it's made up of prosecutors and former members of Congress. The group can initiate investigations and then pass them on to the House ethics committee to investigate further.

So far, at least 19 lawmakers are being investigated between both ethics panels. That's proof to some naysayers in the reform community that Capuano's project is working — for now.

Craig Holman from Public Citizen was one of those naysayers. "OCE is the best thing we've got going on Capitol Hill right now when it comes to monitoring and enforcing the congressional ethics rules," Holman said. " Otherwise, we're leaving it up to the members themselves and we know that doesn't work."

But this arrangement is tenuous. Holman said the ethics body is only as good as the people on it. And reformers worry the next Congress will get rid of it altogether. And just because the House is investigating lawmakers, it doesn't mean they'll do anything to punish members of Congress they find guilty of corruption.

Still, Capuano said this is a good example of how he thinks change should happen — slowly.

"I hope I'm an idealist," Capuano said. "I hope I'm a pragmatic idealist. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it's not. A pragmatic idealist is someone who wants to make the world perfect, but knows they can't. And I want to work towards that, but I'm willing to accept small steps."

The reformers say Capuano's pragmatism and status as an insider made him the only person who could get this kind of change passed. Some even call him a "reformer."

This program aired on November 25, 2009.


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