MY LAST NERVE: How Did an Ethics Reform Bill Become the Speaker Protection Act?

May 9, 2014

Inside Insight

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Sc capital groundsIT WASN’T AN ETHICS REFORM BILL THEN,
AND IT SURE ISN’T ONE NOW

Just how many more times members of the House of Representatives will attempt to get their Speaker off the hook from a potentially criminal investigation remains to be seen. What’s clear is that they aren’t done yet.

On Tuesday the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send the subcommittee-amended version of H.3945 to the full House. This bill has a long history of being used as a vehicle to protect lawmakers – and particularly the Speaker of the House – all the while purporting to be an agent of “historical ethics reform.”

Last April, The Nerve was first to report that the House Judiciary Committee passed an omnibus ethics bill – without actually having seen the bill in writing – that would have decriminalized the ethics code almost entirely. Following that report, and significant public outcry over the impact of the bill, a “strike-and-insert” amendment was approved that would restore language about criminal penalties for many ethics violations.

The same version of H.3945 would have also forced citizens and/or representatives of any grassroots organizations wishing to testify in front of legislative committees or subcommittees – in other words, any organizations likely to criticize lawmakers – to register with the State Ethics Commission as a lobbyist and pay a $200 registration fee.

Concerns were raised, changes were made, etc. And yet here we are, looking once again at the same bill and finding another attempt to protect lawmakers – specifically the Speaker.

Following the passage of this bill by the Senate in February of this year, it was returned to the House where it was then referred to a special Judiciary subcommittee. The most recent version passed by that subcommittee – and subsequently unanimously approved by the full House Judiciary Committee – contains several provisions that look an awful lot like another attempt by some members of the House to protect their Speaker. The bill proposes the following:

  • A change to allowable campaign fund expenses that allows not only for payment but “reimbursement” of “reasonable and necessary” travel expenses associated with the campaign or the office.
  • A definition of “official responsibilities of the officeholder” – something not currently defined by law. Official responsibilities would be defined to include, but not be limited to, political party events, official appearances or meetings for which reimbursement is not offered by the governmental entity, and educational forums or conventions to which an officeholder is invited in his or her official capacity.

The Speaker of the House is, of course, the subject of a grand jury investigation for reimbursing himself from campaign funds for activities not in conjunction with his official duties. Those duties aren’t actually defined anywhere in the law. This proposal would certainly take care of that.

  • A provision of H.4453 – a bill that failed to meet the May 1 crossover deadline and is yet to even be considered by the full House – that would allow public officials determined to have misused campaign funds to face no penalties, so long as they reimburse the funds within 30 days’ notice from the appropriate supervisory office.
  • Provisions of H.4452 specifying that campaign funds could be used to pay for any reasonable and necessary expenses associated with a campaign or office. Current law specifies that only travel expenses and the cost of food and beverage consumed by the candidate and his or her immediate family at a political event are eligible for payment from campaign funds. The provisions requires, moreover, that any reimbursement for travel made by a campaign must be made at the IRS rate, and the payment/reimbursement of any travel, lodging, food or beverage expenses must be for the purpose of campaigning or part of an officeholder’s official responsibilities.

It would appear, then, that if the Speaker’s current attempts to have the Attorney General thrown off of his Grand Jury case and to have a circuit judge refer the matter entirely to the House Ethics Committee fail, his fellow House members are setting up yet more protections.

The next step for this bill is for the full House to vote the committee report up or down. That vote is likely to occur on the floor of the House, on Tuesday. Should they approve the committee report, the bill would be returned to the Senate where the Senate would have to agree or disagree with the House version. Should the Senate disagree – and essentially insist on the version of the bill the chamber passed in February – a conference committee (three members from each chamber) between the two chambers will be established.

The only parts of the bill that can make it into the final bill are those that are already written into each chamber’s version (unless special free conference powers are approved). Essentially, if any deals are struck between the conferees from each chamber (for instance, if the Senate wins the battle to keep ethics investigations and punishments with House and Senate ethics committees in exchange for accepting the new “protections” in the House bill) the public could end up with a bill that does the opposite of provide more accountability for their government. They’ll end up with a law that permits even more corruption than we have already.