Editorial: Bipartisan ethics panel doesn’t solve problem

December 16, 2012 

— ALL OTHER things being equal, it’s much better for a legislative ethics committee to be divided between Republicans and Democrats than dominated by one party, as the S.C. House Ethics Committee always has been, regardless of which party was in control.

But right now, things are not equal: Too many high-profile cases of ethical self-dealing, punctuated by a landmark study that detailed our ethics-law shortcomings, made ethics reform the hot campaign promise of the 2012 elections, creating the first real hope in two decades for improvement. And one of the changes gaining the most momentum is significantly reducing the role of the legislative ethics panels in policing legislators’ behavior.

In that context, the House did not take a step in the right direction when it voted this month to replace a system that produced an Ethics Committee composed of five Republicans and one Democrat with one that requires an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

It improved the status quo, but it actually pushed the reform agenda in the wrong direction, by enabling representatives to argue that they already have reformed their self-policing system.

House Republican Leader Bruce Bannister said this isn’t all the House plans to do, merely all it could do on this front until 2014, when presumably there would be a constitutional amendment on the ballot to eliminate the House and Senate Ethics committees.

We certainly hope he’s right on the first point, but we are certain that he’s wrong on the second.

It’s probably true that the Legislature can’t give non-legislators all of the power the ethics committees have. But there’s no need to.

What the state constitution reserves to each body is the power to determine whether to “punish its members for disorderly behavior” or expel them. What it does not reserve to the Legislature — and therefore, what the Legislature can delegate to an executive agency — is the ability to investigate ethics complaints against legislators, make its findings public and bring administrative, civil or criminal charges against legislators.

As long as those jobs are performed by an independent body, there’s no reason to eliminate the House and Senate ethics committees. Let them decide whether to issue a private or a public reprimand against one of their own for violating the standards of decorum.

Let them decide, for that matter, whether a legislator who has accepted illegal campaign contributions or gotten a job for doing legislative favors should be suspended or expelled. Suspension and expulsion are separate matters from whatever fines or imprisonment an enforcement agency or court might dole out. And, certainly, it would be better for those decisions to be made by a bipartisan panel.

What’s important is that the job of investigating legislators and issuing legal sanctions be performed by an independent body. That’s what legislators will do if they have any intention of obeying the ethics law. That’s what will restore the public’s confidence that our legislators are working for the good of our state rather than the good of themselves. And no amount of tweaking the makeup or internal rules of the self-police squad is going to do that.

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