COLUMBIA, SC — THE PURPOSE of an ethics law is to reduce the chance that public officials will serve their personal interests or the interests of their campaign donors at the expense of the public interest. We do this by requiring full reporting of potential conflicts, by outlawing some behaviors that involve conflicts, and clearly defining the lines, and by creating a muscular enforcement mechanism with serious penalties.
The bill the Senate will be asked to pass on Tuesday requires legislators to tell us the source of all of their income, the income of their immediate family and, in some cases, of their business associates. It requires shadowy special-interest groups that increasingly dominate the political debate to tell us who they are when they try to influence our votes. And it reduces from 20 days to six the blackout period, when candidates can receive controversial donations that remain hidden until after an election.
All of these changes will reduce lawmakers’ temptation to put their own financial or political interests ahead of the public interest, and let voters know if they yield to the temptation.
The legislation also improves enforcement, making more of the disciplinary process public and giving enforcers the option of levying fees, requiring violators to pay back money they misspent and even charging politicians the cost of investigating them; these are significant changes for legislators, because state law allows only two extreme options for punishment: a reprimand or expulsion. The bill also prohibits using campaign funds to pay criminal penalties — although officials still can use them to fight ethics charges.
All of these changes will reduce the feeling too many officials have that it’s safe to violate the law, because even if they get caught, the penalty won’t be severe.
Indeed, the bill contains only one clearly bad change: requiring enforcers to be bound by their advisory rulings, even when that advice is given in secret. Such protection should only attach to public advice.
That’s not to say there’s only one problem with H.3945. To the contrary, it is deeply problematic. But the problem lies not in what is in it but in what is not in it. The problem lies in the temptation it gives our legislators to check “ethics reform” off their to-do list and go on their merry way, as if they have reformed our ethics law.
They have not reformed our ethics law.
If this bill becomes law, the House Ethics Committee still will judge House members, and the Senate Ethics Committee still will judge senators, and they will make their most important decisions in secret.
If this bill becomes law, enforcers still will not have the tools to catch violations, even if they want to, except when the sun and the moon and the stars align perfectly.
If this bill becomes law, violations still will be only misdemeanors, no matter how serious they are.
This, in fact, is a bill that should be passed only with the very clear and explicit acknowledgment that it is not an ethics-reform bill. It is a disclosure bill. It is an important disclosure bill. A long overdue disclosure bill. But a disclosure bill. We still need an ethics-reform bill.