BUT AT LEAST WE HAD A FEW HOURS OF OPEN, HONEST DEBATE
It’s only mid-February and already the Senate’s omnibus ethics bill is dead. In an extended and at times heated session Wednesday, the Senate failed to pass S.1 in a vote of 24 to 19. By that point, the bill had gone from bad to worse with just a single amendment.
That amendment, proposed by Sen. Luke Rankin (R-Horry) – the current chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee – would have created a joint legislative ethics commission to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers and their staff. Rankin referred to his amendment as “his best effort to compromise” to the body. The joint commission would have been comprised of two senators, two House members, and five non-legislative members (three appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the General Assembly, and two appointed by the attorney general). This amendment was adopted after a fiery debate between several prominent leaders in the Senate. It changed the bill dramatically, and for that reason many senators voted against the measure, effectively killing the bill.
Let’s take a step back and ask if the amended bill would have been an improvement on current law. The senate bill started from a point of compromise. The bill, as it came out of committee, would:
- not achieve truly independent investigation and enforcement of ethics laws.
- legalize the practice of lawmakers receiving de facto permission from House and Senate Ethics Committees to engage in ethically doubtful activities.
- require recusal for only some decisions in which the lawmaker has a personal interest.
- require the disclosure of some private income, but there are some pretty big loopholes here. And the disclosure requirements on public income would be loosened – just as in the House bill.
- loosen the disclosure requirement on PACs via the “major purpose” loophole.
- force non-electoral advocacy groups to disclose top donors.
This is ethics reform? Come on.
Instead of improving the bill on the floor, the amendment by Rankin dramatically worsened an already weak attempt at reform. That’s the tough part about ethics reform, though – the public has to depend on the very lawmakers who benefit from the current system to suddenly reform it – give up their power – and create a more accountable system where public corruption isn’t legal. And so a bill rarely ever starts from a sincere whole-hearted attempt at addressing a problem; instead it starts from a point of what can be politically achieved – what will be least objectionable to those who like things the way they are.
How can this problem be counteracted?
Here’s how: Lawmakers should debate ethics reform in public. Sounds obvious, right? And yet for the last two years we’ve seen committees and entire caucuses move the debate into executive session or to the Palmetto Club, where the public isn’t invited. The result? Bills that decriminalized the ethics code, failed to alter legislative self-policing in any significant way, allowed PACs to go dark, retaliated against lawmakers’ critics, etc., etc.
We started to have some open debate on S.1, but the Senate’s President Pro Tempore – Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) – cut it off and instead appointed a five-member group to hash out difference behind closed doors. It was determined this group could reach some sort of compromise and, as Sen. Leatherman put it, give the Senate a bill they “could all live with.” Apparently no such compromise was reached: Sen Rankin and Sen. Larry Martin thrashed each other on the floor (in the metaphorical sense, of course), and they were part of the group Leatherman appointed.
When debate resumed on the bill Wednesday, it was clear that many senators had taken a side, and it wasn’t difficult to see that a large group of senators intended to gut reform or kill it.
Contrary to many senators’ claims in the past couple of weeks, we have a problem with corruption in South Carolina – and that includes the Senate. This bill never would have addressed widespread public corruption, and the Rankin amendment took the bill even further away from anything resembling reform.
Media reports say “ethics reform” died in the Senate on Wednesday. I’m not sure that’s right. Something died, for sure, but it wasn’t ethics reform.
Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization