Scoppe: The SC ethics killers

Associate EditorJune 9, 2013 

Scoppe

GOV. NIKKI Haley blames Senate Democrats for the Legislature’s failure to complete one of its top tasks for the legislative session — overhauling our inadequate ethics law — and certainly they deserve a good bit of blame, and disdain.

Except for Sens. Vincent Sheheen and Joel Lourie, and sometimes Sen. Thomas McElveen, the Democrats consistently slowed down the Senate’s regular work in order to run out the clock over the last two weeks of the session, and voted against efforts to bring the ethics bill up for debate.

But while a single, determined senator can block passage of just about any bill during the final week of the session, a single senator can’t get the Senate calendar so backed up that knocking off one of the Legislature’s top priorities is such a simple matter. Even those 14 Democrats couldn’t have managed that trick without a lot of help from Republicans, both deliberate and inadvertent.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin acknowledged that, in retrospect, he should have found a way to get the bill onto the floor for debate earlier in the session. One problem was that he had created a special subcommittee of senior senators to vet the legislation — which seems like a really smart idea until you remember that senior senators all chair other subcommittees, so they had a tough time scheduling meetings. Compounding the problem: Senators took two weeks’ furlough at Easter to keep their budget in balance.

Once the subcommittee finally reached an agreement, the full committee worked late into the night to pass it in a single meeting. But by then there were only four weeks left in the session — and thanks to an unholy alliance of the radical Republicans and the Democrats, the Senate spent three of them on the budget. Which shouldn’t have surprised anyone after we went through four months of the radicals increasingly monopolizing the Senate’s time pontificating on their personal offense at slights real and perceived and expounding endlessly on their black-helicopter fetishes.

Democrats already were upset by the marathon committee session, but they might have gotten over it if there could have been a thorough debate on the floor. When it became clear that the rational Republicans would give in to the radicals’ defund-the-schools and “nullify” Obamacare fixations in order to get to the ethics bill and then rush it through, Democrats pushed the slow-down into overdrive.

Democrats were right to insist that this bill needs more than a single day’s debate. But their maneuvering ensured that was all it could receive.

It was Gov. Haley herself who delivered the coup de grace, when she trotted out her spokesman to declare that then-Sen. Robert Ford offered “a real-world example of why ethics reform is so important.” Which might have been true if his outrageous actions of converting campaign donations to personal use and covering up donations and expenditures were legal, or if he were still a member of the Senate. But he had just resigned during a damning hearing before the Senate Ethics Committee that was emotionally draining for the committee members. Which is to say that in this particular case, the law was working as it should.

Yes, senators should be able to debate policy on its merits, rather than reacting personally when they get upset, as Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson did when declared Tuesday that if ethics died, it would be because of those comments. But the governor knows how easily a single senator can kill legislation in the final days of the session, and she knows how petty legislators can be. She shouldn’t have allowed this final flare-up to happen, and once it did, she should have worked to soothe hurt feelings.

And Sen. Jackson wasn’t the only one who took offense. GOP Sen. Luke Rankin chaired the special subcommittee that wrote the ethics bill. He also chairs the Ethics Committee, and he delivered a powerful speech Wednesday night about what a fine job that panel had done, and how the process would not have been improved by the ethics-reform bill.

His larger argument was deeply flawed: He complained that the House Ethics Committee has failed to do its job in investigating Ms. Haley, and now Speaker Bobby Harrell, while arguing against doing the only thing the Senate could to correct that: turning investigations of legislators over to an independent body. But it was what a lot of senators wanted to hear.

It’s true, as the governor would like us to remember, that her once and future gubernatorial rival, Sen. Sheheen, did not deliver the Democrats for ethics reform. But in the end, she didn’t do a particularly good job of delivering the Republicans either.

Just 14 of 28 Republicans and Sen. Sheheen voted to stay in session Wednesday night to try to get the bill passed; 11 Republicans joined with 16 Democrats to ensure that our ethics law would remain unreformed for another year.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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