Lawmakers Policing Lawmakers?

April 7, 2016

Inside Insight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dictionary Series : Legislation

Convoluted proposals aside, it’s not very different from lawmakers’ proxies policing lawmakers.

On Tuesday, the Senate debated to topic of ethics reform, and parts of the discussion were illuminating – in a perverse sort of way.

One of the arguments we heard – it first began to make the rounds two years ago – was that the legislature is constitutionally barred from abolishing the system commonly known as legislative self-policy. Currently, as readers of this website will know, state lawmakers are empowered to adjudicate each other’s ethics violations. When a member is accused of violating a provision of the Ethics Act, his guilt or innocence, and then his punishment, are determined by his chamber’s ethics committees. Much of the process happens in secret.

The idea that the state constitution requires this arrangement is laughable. It has been discredited on this website and, more recently, here.

Many lawmakers apparently don’t buy this line of argument – that’s to their credit – but consider what they’re proposing to do instead. Rather than abolish the ethics committees and place themselves under all the same criminal codes non-politicians are subject to, they’re proposing to place themselves under a reconstituted Ethics Commission.

The current Commission is led by a board appointed by the governor. The newly constituted board would have eight members, with four members appointed by the governor (only two of whom may be from the same party as the governor), two members appointed by the Senate (one from the majority caucus and one from the minority caucus), and two appointed by the House (one from the majority caucus and one from the minority caucus).

So rather than being judged by a committee of their peers, lawmakers want to be judged by a committee dominated by their peers’ appointees.

Oh, and although this committee would have the power to investigate ethics violations, it would have no power to punish members. In effect, even if the ethics commission were to find probable cause that a violation had occurred, the House or Senate ethics committee – still extant! – would have the option to punish, to slap on the wrist, or to do nothing.

In short: Don’t look for an end to self-policing any time soon.