MY LAST NERVE: “Debating” Ethics Reform

January 31, 2014

Inside Insight

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senateIf you watched the closing minutes of last Thursday’s Senate session you would have thought, as I did, you were in a twilight zone. While a few senators specifically discussed an “ethics reform” bill currently on the senate calendar, others were busy trying to convince the body not to start debating the bill yet. One senator suggested that if it weren’t for a special senate committee to study the need for ethics reform, the issue would have faded from public consciousness. I actually thought I misheard him – but no, I didn’t. I’ll leave readers to decide whether ethics reform is really the passing fad the senator thinks it is, and whether the public has the attention span of a toddler, as he seems to believe.

In any case, several outspoken senators contend that they are required by the state constitution to investigate and punish their own members. This is not the case. Article III, Section 12 sspecifies that each chamber shall choose its own officers, determine its rules of procedure, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same cause. Disorderly behavior (such as using a cell phone in the chamber) is hardly the same as punishing a member for serious violations of state law.

As the South Carolina Policy Council highlighted last month, neither the House nor the Senate has proven in the past that they are capable of investigating or punishing their members fairly, equally, or transparently.

This issue is causing some serious division among the membership of the Senate, and will likely be the central point of debate when the bill comes back up next week.

While there may be a few senators who are willing to fight for serious reform, there are more who are willing to compromise – those with the mentality that 4 out of 6 necessary reforms aren’t bad – and still more who don’t want to reform the system at all. But who can blame them? For years they have policed their own ethical practices without really having to justify their system to anybody. As you might imagine, many senators are not willing to let go of this unilateral power.

In just a few hours Thursday, I heard everything from “the system for investigating their membership needs to be fine-tuned” to “there isn’t a problem with the current system for investigating their members” and even “the real need for reform is in the House.”

But at least there was disagreement. And that would lead you to believe there will be lots of issues to debate, right? And that this would be done through the legislative process of debate, amendment, more debate, and then a vote. Right? Not quite.

To wrap the discussion up last week, Sen. Larry Martin asked the body to give a few members and some senate staff the weekend to “really put [their] best thoughts together on paper” that they would then present to the rest of the body the following week. He asked members to think about what they could “live with as a member of this Senate” and send any suggestions to the small working group over the weekend. Ultimately, he said, the goal is to adopt something “acceptable to the overwhelming majority of this membership.”

So this is how the process works.

Rather than debate all 54 amendments on the desk (as of Thursday), address all the issues that are necessary for a true comprehensive ethics reform bill, and allow full debate during session where the public could observe, a few senators and some staffers are going to get together and work on a compromise that may avoid a lengthy debate and keep them from addressing other (allegedly) important issues. Not once was it mentioned that lawmakers should pass the one reform that virtually everyone in South Carolina outside the General Assembly has called for – subjecting legislators to the same ethics review processes that every other elected official in the state and even candidates for office are subject to.

The Catch 22 here is that citizens are reliant on legislators to pass laws that will reform the very system from which so many of them have benefitted. Most of the time that leaves us with reforms that are far from adequate or nothing at all. Citizens shouldn’t have to continue to “live with” a corrupt system and legislative compromises simply because that’s what was acceptable to the “overwhelming majority” of the legislature.

The debate on this bill will pick back up in the senate on Tuesday. It’s up to citizens to show their lawmakers that ethics reform is not about what senators and representatives can “live with” and “accept,” but rather about making legal corruption illegal.

Murguia is Director of Research for the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve. She can be reached at jamie@thenerve.org or (803)779-5022, ext. 105. Follow her on Twitter at @JamieMurguia.