Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) named Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones on Tuesday to become chairwoman of the chamber's troubled ethics committee.
The committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is expected to be under increased scrutiny in the new Congress. Democrats swept control of Congress in the November elections in part because of corruption allegations against Republicans.
Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) takes over from Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who was criticized for not acting more forcefully to discipline former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay was eventually forced to resign over ethical and electoral lapses.
The panel -- the only one in the House with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, so neither party can outvote the other -- has been criticized for failing to set and enforce effective ethics rules.
"I hope to be able to restore the public's confidence in the ethics committee and in Congress," Tubbs Jones said in an interview. "No one wants to sit in judgment of their fellow members, but I'm prepared to do that."
Tubbs Jones was elected in 1998 and has served on the ethics panel for six years.
She was a judge for eight years and a county prosecutor for seven.
This fall, she was one of four committee members who conducted an inquiry into the House leadership's handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). The committee found that leaders were "willfully ignorant" of Foley's improper contacts with teenage boys who had served as House pages, but that no House rules were broken.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has described the Foley investigation as a "whitewash" and said she doubted that Tubbs Jones could do much as chairwoman to improve the committee's climate.
"They didn't do their job last year, and I don't think they'll do their job next year," Sloan said. "The problem is inherent with the committee itself and not with the chairman." By tradition, members of Congress set and enforce their own ethics rules.
The committee did not meet for most of 2005 as Democrats and Republicans clashed over new rules that Democrats complained would undermine the system.
In April, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia stepped down as the panel's top Democrat after his conduct came under scrutiny. He was temporarily replaced by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), but Berman was not expected to stay on the committee when Congress reconvenes next month.
In May, the committee began investigations of Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William J. Jefferson (D-La.), and into the possible involvement of other House members in the dealings of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), who is serving an eight-year sentence for bribery and tax evasion. None of those probes has yet resulted in a public report.