Columbia, SC — I WAS IN the House chamber when representatives brought the ethics conference committee report to the floor. A week and a half later, my neck and shoulders still ache. Clearly, a case of whiplash.
One after another, representatives decried the Senate for its obstinate refusal to even consider letting an independent entity investigate legislators’ compliance with the ethics law. We worked so hard for this, they said. We’ve done all we can, they insisted. At some point you have to accept that your negotiating partner won’t budge, take all you can get and move on, they said, with heavy hearts.
Several left it at that. Then — snap! — just as many others continued beyond the standard litany, without so much as a breath to separate their incompatible comments: How dare anyone suggest that there’s anything wrong with our in-house ethics oversight process. Why, they’re calling us unethical. It’s time for us to stand up to those critics and let them know they can’t push us around. They can’t make us accept independent oversight.
Time after time, they did this: Rep. B.R. Skelton, Rep. Walt McLeod, Rep. Grady Brown, Rep. David Weeks. Maybe a couple of more; I must have blacked out at some point.
Each time, the House chamber erupted in applause. A great catharsis. After more than a year of piously proclaiming their determination to create an independent entity to examine complaints against legislators, someone finally was willing to stop kowtowing to those nasty outsiders who just don’t understand.
And House members wonder why we doubt their sincerity.
Usually, you have to go across the lobby to the Senate to see this sort of hypocrisy. Our senators are expert at proclaiming their undying devotion to anything that would be good for our state while working feverishly behind the scenes to disembowel it. But with a few exceptions, Senate opponents of independent oversight have been refreshingly willing to own up to their opposition.
Not everyone opposes independent oversight, of course. Several senators and House members — perhaps even most — sincerely support it, but as one of them told me after I questioned the sincerity of some conferees, “We weren’t invited to the party.”
Rep. Weeks presented the most dramatic dichotomy that day in the House, probably because he gave the most compelling speech — on both sides.
As a member of the ethics conference committee, he assured his colleagues that he and Reps. Greg Delleney and Bruce Bannister had worked as hard as they could to get independent oversight into the bill. We insisted on a roll-call vote on independent oversight, he told them. All three of your conferees voted yes, he said. And every one of the senators voted no.
Then, switching suddenly to his role as a member of the House Ethics Committee, he declared that “our system is just fine.” He defied anyone, anyone, “to show me where we didn’t do the right thing, didn’t act with integrity … covered up anything.”
Which of course no one could possibly do, since that would require knowing about any complaints that the committee found to be without merit, and it is a crime to tell anyone about an ethics complaint that is dismissed. Even if you’re the one who filed it.
Rep. Skelton told his colleagues that by saying House members needed independent oversight, critics were impugning the integrity of the Ethics Committee members. And one by one he called out the names of the committee members, announcing, “You can’t be trusted,” and “You’re corrupt.”
Which of course overlooks the actual problem: It’s not dishonesty; it’s blindness. And possibly fear. It’s group think and suspended disbelief and a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sort of understanding of just how easy it would be to run afoul of the law — an understanding that most of us do not have, because the requirements for legislators seem pretty straight-forward to us.
Soon after the current ethics law was passed, I attended a meeting where the Senate Ethics Committee was drawing up guidelines for what qualified as a campaign expense. One by one, senators named things that nobody but an elected official would ever imagine calling a campaign expense: bulk birthday cards and even presents for certain constituents, donations to local churches and civic clubs, tickets to the Masters (where you might run into some donors). That list effectively became the law.
The problem is giving legislators the heaviest imaginable benefit of the doubt. In a secret process that can land people in prison if they dare speak of it, or of the underlying complaint.
It would be a lot easier to defend such self-policing if it were open to public review; it’s much more difficult to overlook unethical behavior when voters are watching. And legislators have opened it some, making the complaints and the remainder of the process public if the Ethics Committee finds cause to proceed. Senators are quick to point out that they led the way in this, and the House finally followed suit. But we still have no idea what sorts of complaints the committees dismiss, and whether they really ought to be dismissed. To which our legislators say, trust us.
Legislators argue that it would be unfair to make the complaints public before they are vetted, because unscrupulous political foes could file false charges just to hurt them politically. I’ve never understood why this is a problem for legislators but not for people who are the subject of unsubstantiated police reports and unsubstantiated lawsuits, all of which are public.
But let’s accept that complaint as valid. There is an obvious alternative to opening unvetted complaints to public scrutiny: Give someone other than legislators first review.
Which the House so desperately wants to do.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.