A former White House correspondent once recalled that one of the Presidents he had covered was adept at “looking like” he was doing something.
The legislature has been telling us this is the year it’s doing something about ethics and the House has quickly sent a package of bills to the Senate where the majority floor leader is expecting action within a couple of weeks. It probably is unfair to suggest at this point that the legislature is “looking like” it’s doing something significant but it might not be unfair to wonder if it is doing as much as it should.
It might be fair to say lawmakers are putting themselves in a good position to have something to brag about in their re-election campaigns. But a fair question to ask is, “What difference will these things really make?” Will the hallways during legislative sessions look any different? Will the influence of special interest groups be lessened? How will these changes make the lives of the people on this quiet street better?
Maybe the answer to that last question can honestly be, “They won’t,” but they might provoke a slight climate change at the Capitol. The climate change, however, is unlikely to melt any political icebergs.
One change approved by the House bars members of the legislature from becoming lobbyists for a year. One entire year. Not one term. Or four years. One year after a legislator leaves, that person can be back renewing old buddy relationships with about eighty percent of the people who were colleagues 365 days earlier. But it does end suspicions at least somewhat that someone will vote for a bill one day and then go to work for the organization behind it a few weeks later.
Another bill forbids elected officials from being paid political consultants. In other words, the Speaker of the House or former Speaker cannot run a political consulting office on the side and collect fees from fellow House members wanting more terms, especially if he makes donations to the House members from his leftover campaign funds, then collects those donations back as consulting fees. In other places, this is known as money laundering .
Another proposal bans lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators. Lobbyists can still sponsor junkets but the lawmakers have to pay their own way. No more tickets to baseball, football, basketball, hockey games would be allowed, though, unless everybody is invited.
One lawmaker refers to the ethics bills on the move early in this session as “baby steps.” But they ARE steps and we haven’t seen steps of any size taken for a long time.
However, we already have seen that the legislature is adept at ignoring the T-Rex in the room. The House has not touched proposals on campaign donations and the senate leader says the issue will not be considered in his chamber.
So the message is clear. A free ticket to a football game is a sin. A check for $100,000 is sacred. So legislators seeking re-election this year can tell the folks at home they supported steps to “clean up” government. And because the state is likely to remain the only one with no donation limits, they’ll have plenty of money to advertise their efforts to re-establish virtue at the Capitol.
One lawmaker has been quoted as saying, “Campaign contributions…are political speech. That is not part of the discussion.” Give that lawmaker some marks for candor.
Free Speech is important in political campaigns. But it’s not free, is it? Some people can afford tens of thousands of dollars of “free” speech. Some people can afford five dollars of “free” speech. Both can speak but guess which one is most likely to be heard. Pretty clearly, the refusal of the legislature to consider balancing the scales of political speech is an indication of who they’d rather listen to and who’s invited to the conversation.
Let us not confuse free speech guaranteed in the constitution with political speech guaranteed by the checkbook. Until the imbalance is corrected, those who serve in The People’s House might want to acknowledge they’re serving in The SOME People’s House.
Baby steps are being taken. But the footprint of the T-Rex emphasizes how puny they really are in today’s Missouri politics.