How to Tell if They’re Serious
A guide to ethics reform legislation (and shams)
by Frank Cagle
We don’t want to suggest that legislators aren’t fully committed to birthing ethics legislation or that they will try to smother it in the crib. But you should know that some people might be using the rubric of ethics legislation to gain political advantage. It’s shocking, I know. There are also things to look for so you’ll know when seriousness is not being seriously considered. To wit:
• You will hear that it only makes sense to have a special session on ethics just before the regular session in January, when legislators will gather anyway.
That means they don’t intend to do much. The special session will get caught up in the regular session. Stalling will allow the clock to run out as the regular session begins. If a committee meeting all summer can’t agree on legislation, what are the chances the full legislature will? If they had a special session this fall, the spotlight would be on results. So if you see the session waiting until January, you know the fix is in.
• You may see seemingly tough ethics bills put on the books requiring a lot of paperwork by legislators and reports filed to some commission, board or panel.
It is already against the law to
• There will probably be a bill to stop lobbyists from buying dinner, drinks or golf outings for legislators.
Unless any transaction of value between a lobbyist and a legislator is always illegal, then you can assume that loopholes are in place to influence legislative leaders and committee chairs. The rule has to be absolute or it’s window dressing. Again, you also have to look and see if there is an enforcement mechanism. If you leave it to the head waiter at Morton’s to decide if ethics violations are occurring, it’s a farce. If wining and dining is outlawed, who will enforce it?
• A campaign “reform” bill will be offered to limit political contributions by individuals.
The Democrats, having been in power in the Legislature for over 100 years, get most of the special-interest contributions from businesses and organizations that have lobbyists at the General Assembly. To counter that, the Republicans sometimes find individual rich conservatives to contribute money to offset that advantage. Extra money from the Gregory family in Kingsport enabled the Republicans to theoretically capture the state Senate in the last election. The Democrats have offered “ethics legislation” to limit individual contributions in the future. Fine. Then there needs to be a bill to forbid campaign contributions from any group or business that hires a lobbyist. Then there’s a level playing field. If there is a limit on individual contributors and no ban on special-interest contributions, it isn’t ethics legislation; it’s a power grab on the part of the Democrats.
• There will be a move to ban cash contributions to political campaigns.
That’s not a bad idea, and there should certainly be a $100 limit on cash. A complete ban presents a problem when you try having a bean supper and people are pitching $5 in the bowl for your campaign. It’s a chance to do grassroots campaigning instead of being cozy with big contributors. Do we really think these folks are the problem when it comes to ethically challenged legislators? But no one seems to be looking at the other side of the coin. Legislative candidates run around buying lunch, buying gas, paying bills and living out of their campaign account, putting it all on a credit card. Then the campaign expense report just shows a $500 payment to MasterCard. Which do you think is more open to abuse: collecting $5 at a bean supper or letting candidates live out of the campaign account by putting it on the credit card? Any payments to a credit card company out of a campaign account should have a copy of the credit card statement attached showing where the money was spent.
If the special session on ethics is in January, both the Republican and Democratic caucuses will have a fund-raiser shortly before the special session to scarf up contributions from lobbyists to be used in re-election efforts next year. There will also be legislators participating in the ethics session who have been indicted and several that are being investigated by House or Senate ethics committees.
That hypocrisy, more than anything else, will demonstrate a lack of seriousness about ethics reform.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .