Nothing like a little sex scandal or two to prompt lawmakers to make sincere noises about ethics reform and to file a blizzard of paper proposals to put their own houses in order. We’ve seen blizzards at the start of other legislative sessions. One even delayed the start of the session one year. But legislative sessions last until mid-May and by then there’s not a sign of January’s blizzard. Whether it’s a snow blizzard or an ethics paper blizzard, things melt away by mid-May.
About a dozen ethics bills have been filed for the legislature to consider in its upcoming session. Filing of ethics bills is easy. We’ve seen it done dozens of times. Ethics legislation has been a topic for lawmakers to thump their chests about before sessions for many years. But all of that blather turns to butter and melts away once the legislative session begins and “ethics” is a forgotten word by the time adjournment rolls around.
Government ethics is a never-ending issue. Buying influence is hardly new although it always is news. There have been times when personal reputation has become less desirable than political power to those in important positions.
Chairman Mao’s observation that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” has been replaced in America by the political power that grows out of the checkbook. What is the public to think of those it perceives as beneficiaries of the checkbook-as-power philosophy? A Missouri Governor who served more than a century ago defined that perception.
Joseph Folk was elected governor in 1904 after leading a nationally-recognized fight against corruption in local, state and state capitol politics. The Lieutenant Governor resigned during that campaign after admitting he was a bag man for people giving legislators bribes and the legislators who took them. Four Senators were indicted and convicted although an elected state Supreme Court later tossed the convictions.
Folk talked about lawmakers who sell their votes. And he noted, in terms that seem pretty contemporary more than eleven decades later, there are different ways to be a sell-out:
The legislator who sells his vote traffics in the honor of a sovereign people and prostitutes the trust reposed in him. There can be no offense which, if allowed to go on, is fraught with graver consequences. It is more fatal to civic life than any other crime, for it pollutes the stream of law at its source. It makes the passage of laws mere matters of bargain and sale, thwarts justice, enthrones iniquity, and renders lawful government impossible. If all official acts were for sale, we would have a government not of, for, and by the people, but a government of, for, and by the few with wealth enough to purchase official favor. It is the highest duty of every legislator, of every official, and of every citizen to do all that he can to eradicate this evil, which is the greatest enemy to free government and the greatest danger that confronts this nation today, It is not always by taking money that an official may prostitute his trust. He does it whenever he uses the power given him to be exercised for the public good for any other purpose. An official can embezzle public power as well as public money.
Legislative sessions in election years are great opportunities for both parties to push legislative issues, hold legislative hearings, and pass legislative bills that benefit their base of support. Ethics legislation has a tendency to get in the way of those actions, particularly if the legislation limits the flow through the natural cash pipeline.
The proposals we’ve looked at so far keep the flow going full blast this year. They won’t go into effect until 2017. And none of them give the state ethics commission some badly-needed big and sharp teeth.
Joe Folk warned more than 110 years ago about the use of power for anything but the broad public good.
Ethics. Power. Which will prevail in the 2016 session?
Will we look around in May, recalling the blizzard in January, and see that everything has melted away,