There’s not a lot of hope at this point that the Legislature is going to pass an ethics bill that does the things it needs to do — primarily putting someone other than legislators in charge of conducting routine investigations of legislators’ compliance with the law, and reinstating the status quo ante by making it absolutely clear that the attorney general has complete discretion to investigate and prosecute legislators.
But Senate negotiators still could insist on the latter, to demonstrate that they are committed to the rule of law. And even if they’re not willing to do that, they can insist on the best version of the less-important provisions in the House and Senate versions of the bill. That’s why it’s essential that when senators work their way down the calendar to H.3945, possibly today, Senate leaders appoint conference committee members who actually believe in ethics.
That might seem self-evident, but there is a tradition in the Senate of making conference committee appointments match the overall mood of the Senate — for instance by appointing a member to represent those who opposed the final version of the bill. Of course, it’s hard to say precisely what that would mean in this case, since the final version of the bill wasn’t particularly pro-ethics, but this much is clear:
There are senators who understand how much damage has been done to public confidence in government and who want to pass a law that will begin to restore that trust, and there are senators who are much more concerned about making sure that they and their colleagues don’t have to worry about obeying the law, and it will be up to President Pro Tem John Courson, Republican Leader Harvey Peeler and Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin to decide which kind of senators to appoint to the conference committee.
Their appointments will tell us a lot about whether anything can be salvaged from more than two years of work toward improving our ethics law — and about them.