LET’S DO THIS ONE AT A TIME, SHALL WE?
A House ethics ad hoc subcommittee met for the first time Wednesday to discuss independent investigation and enforcement of ethics violations. A press release stated that the committee would pick up on ethics reform right where the legislature left off last year, and that it would produce a “comprehensive reform package.”
And that’s a problem.
Last year’s omnibus ethics reform bill was a disaster. Early on, it would have decriminalized the ethics code and punished citizen groups for criticizing lawmakers. It was used at several stages to get the House Speaker off the hook for violations of the Ethics Act he would later be indicted for. By the end, it would have accomplished almost nothing of what citizen groups had asked for – the provision establishing an independent policing process was gone, and even the income disclosure provision was weaker than it needed to be – and instead merely loosened ethics laws.
While House members may want to point fingers at the Senate because it was the latter that ultimately didn’t pass the bill, it was a good thing that some senators took the time to read the bill and do their homework on what was actually in the bill. Had they not, we would have ended up with a bill that limited free speech by not allowing certain groups to mention politicians by name within 60 days of a general election. We would have been told “reform” was a bill that broadened the definition of “official responsibilities” to include almost anything – allowing lawmakers to, for instance, legally use their campaign accounts to pay to take family members on trips or to make contributions to non-profits that employ their spouses. We would have had an ethics law that codified the practice of keeping advisory opinions from House and Senate staff secret: meaning the public would never know what activities our legislators were told are legal and/or ethical.
The ad hoc committee can do better than this. In the wake of the indictment of former speaker Bobby Harrell, and with FBI and SLED officials apparently investigating other lawmakers, one would think House members would put some distance between themselves and a now suspended and indicted House Speaker’s attempt to shield himself from the consequences of his conduct.
Reform starts with getting to the root of the problem – and the root of the problems is the ease with which South Carolina lawmakers can engage in corrupt behavior. End the practice self-policing – lawmakers have repeatedly proven themselves incapable of applying rules and laws equally to powerful and non-powerful members alike. Require all lawmakers to disclose their private income sources, with no exceptions. Eliminate the legislative exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, which allows members and their staff to keep almost all of their official communications secret.
So let’s be done with “comprehensive reform packages” and omnibus ethics bills. Introduce and debate each of these reforms separately. Why? Because citizens don’t trust lawmakers to do it any other way. That’s why this is a topic in the first place.