Ethics? It’s about Power
Leaders hard pressed to support reform
by Frank Cagle
For the first time in memory Republican legislators seem to be winning the public-relations battle in Nashville. House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and his leadership team are continually being cast in the role of obstacles to ethics reform, continually voting against ethics proposals put forward by Minority Leader Bill Dunn of Knoxville.
The Democrats have been accused of a failure to “get it” or to realize that “the party’s over.” But they do get it. The problem for Speaker Naifeh is that there isn’t much he can do about it.
Ethics reform is about more than ethics. Transparency in the operation of the legislature will result in a loss of power. Open meetings, recorded subcommittee votes and reducing the power of a handful of super lobbyists is an assault on the system that allows the legislative leadership to rule with an iron hand. The more the public is informed as to the way the legislature operates, the harder it is to bring the hammer down.
This is not so much a Republican-versus-Democrat fight. The Democrats are on their heels because they have been the party in power for decades.
(The Republicans swept into control of the U.S. Congress in 1994 because of the House banking scandal, arrogance and the free-spending of the Democrats who had controlled the House for
Some of the Republican proposals concern tightening up rules on the Black Caucus, which has been revealed to be an organization badly in need of an accountant and reporting requirements. But African Americans comprise one-third of Naifeh’s voting bloc in the House; he has to tread lightly.
Ethics bills that prevent members and their families from benefiting from legislation are also sensitive subjects. If you go down the list of Democrats on the committee drawing up ethics
It is no coincidence that the legislators caught up in the Tennessee Waltz indictments consisted of Democrats and one Republican Naifeh supporter. If the FBI undercover operative had been going around trying to give money to rank-and-file Republicans to pass legislation it would have been very suspicious.
The power and the potentialities for corruption in the legislature are centered on committee chairs, powerful subcommittee chairs and the leadership. That’s what makes it a Democratic problem and that’s what makes meaningful change difficult for Naifeh and his leadership team to accept.
Sunshine is a disinfectant that threatens the power of the leadership. Naifeh and his lieutenants control the flow of legislation primarily by use of subcommittees. That’s where bills they don’t like get killed. If all meetings were public and all subcommittee votes were posted on the Internet, bloggers, citizens groups and reporters could easily observe bills being killed. You could also watch to see when some member of leadership drops in on a subcommittee and insists on voting. That’s a sure sign the bill in question is one the leadership does not want to come to the floor.
(Example: The Republicans have some gun bill that will be popular with the NRA. The leadership doesn’t like the bill, but cannot afford to have the Democrats on record on the floor opposing it. That vote will be used for mail-out pamphlets to gun owners against Democrats in the next election. So the leadership has to kill the bill in an unrecorded voice vote in a subcommittee.)
Sessions of the legislature are mostly about the budget. Where the money goes, or doesn’t go, is a huge part of the business that gets done. The budget is usually worked out in secret meetings around the Capitol or even across town. The real allocation of the state’s resources is rarely done in public. Requiring all meetings to be subject to the Sunshine law means the public will be able to see the sausages being made. That will make it harder for the governor, the leadership and the finance committees to reach a consensus. Usually the budget gets sprung on the rank and file for an up-or-down vote. There is little opportunity for change.
Dunn and the other Republicans will continue to press for a long list of ethics-law changes. The Democrats will slow walk the process, trying to keep as much power within the leadership as possible. There will also be Republicans who agree with the leadership that too much sunshine can be a bad thing.
If you are scoring it at home, look at the final package. Look for open meetings, enforcement mechanisms and complete disclosure. Otherwise it will be business as usual.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .