Current Senate Ethics System Not So Bad?

April 12, 2016

Inside Insight

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Senate

One senator’s telling response

Recently we were forwarded an emailed response from Sen. Mike Fair about an ethics-related bill currently in the legislature.

The constituent who had originally queried Sen. Fair was not favorably disposed to the bill, which he called the “incumbent protection act,” and urged the senator to vote against it. We don’t take a view on how lawmakers should or shouldn’t vote, but in fairness to Sen. Fair’s constituent, the bill in question would have (a) loosened requirements on public income disclosure, (b) rearrange the legislature’s system of self-policing without removing it, (c) gives lawmakers influence over a newly constituted Ethics Commission, (d) allow House and Senate ethics committees to issue secret “advisory opinions” to members, essentially giving them permission to engage in potentially unethical conduct, and (e) does nothing to stop lawmakers from spending campaign money on just about anything. (Read more here. Also note that the legislation was completely altered last week.)

So – the constituent’s concerns were at least warranted. Sen. Fair’s response, however, struck us as especially significant: “What is wrong with the bill?” he asked. A fair question, since his constituent hadn’t gone into any detail. But then this:

You do know that our ethics rules in the Senate have been responsible for discharging members over the years. So, we are starting with a product that has worked to discover unethical behavior on the part of incumbents. If we do kill the bill, we have a set of published ethics by which we can continue to work. Now, what would you suggest needs to be done to this bill? I understand that elected officials need to be held to the level of ethics behavior that a pastor is held.

Mike

It’s very much to Sen. Fair’s credit that he responded directly to his constituent, but we have to ask: Apart from Robert Ford, whose flagrance in buying personal items with campaign cash was too hard to ignore, when were “our ethics rules in the Senate . . . responsible for discharging members”? We’re sure it has happened, but when was the last time, pre-Ford? And if so few senators are charged with ethics violations, is that because South Carolina state senators are just so upstanding – or does it have more to do with the laxity of the rules?

Sen. Fair’s argument, then, seems to be that a new ethics bill is unnecessary, and indeed Sen. Fair says that members “have a set of published ethics [??] by which we can continue to work.”

We don’t know what that means.

As for the contention that “elected officials need to be held to the level of ethics behavior that a pastor is held,” that is simply not true. Pastors are generally expected to abide by a set of moral rules that politicians may or may not be held to by their constituents – and probably not held to them. For our part, we’d be happy if lawmakers were barred from engaging in blatant conflicts of interest, for example, or spending money on themselves that isn’t theirs. The current system simply does not bar these forms of conduct except in the grossest, most flagrant instances. On ethics, there’s where to start.