WITH A DEEPLY disturbing presidential campaign sucking all the oxygen out of the room, voters with legislative elections to consider this fall are very nearly on their own. So a bit of advice: Beware of candidates promising to make lawmakers tell us where they get their income. Or candidates promising to make lawmakers stop policing their own ethics. Those promises might not mean as much as they seem to.
In fact, the best thing you can do is to ask precisely what it is those candidates mean. If they stare blankly or start stammering, that suggests they either don’t know, or else are hoping you don’t know, that the Legislature passed laws this year to make both of those reforms.
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Both possibilities are much bigger problems than the flaws in our ethics law, and they raise some serious questions about the candidates. They’re problems we see over and over with candidates at all levels — in fact, it’s probably the most consistent problem I’ve seen in a quarter century of writing about elections; it’s just that the ethics claims have struck me the most this year.
So, the questions: Are the candidates deliberately trying to mislead you — to stir up animosity by making you think incumbents refused to act on those items this year? (As if you don’t have enough reason to be upset with what the Legislature did and didn’t do this year … or last year … or the year before that.) Or are they so clueless that if we treated election campaigns more like the job interviews that they actually are, the candidates wouldn’t get called back for a second interview?
How many other things, you should wonder, are these candidates promising to do that the Legislature has already done? (I’ve seen at least one candidate promise to shorten the legislative session, for example — even though the Legislature passed a law this year to do just that; a law with a lot of wiggle room, to be sure, but a law nonetheless. )
How many things are they promising to do that the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to do? (Forbidding same-sex marriage is probably the promise you’ll hear most often in this category. Like it or loathe it, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on that issue, and it’s not going to change. The only thing S.C. lawmakers can possibly accomplish on this issue — just like the Obamacare nullification legislation so many of them couldn’t stop wasting our time on a few years back — is to pass a law that gets challenged in court, requiring our state to spend ridiculous amounts of money fighting a lawsuit that we will ultimately lose.)
How many things are these candidates promising to do that there’s no reason to do, because the “problem” they want to solve doesn’t actually exist? (Remember when legislators tried to pass a law to prohibit S.C. judges from using Sharia law? Which there’s no reason to believe any S.C. judge has ever done, or even considered doing.)
Now I’ll be the first to say that the ethics reforms the Legislature passed this year didn’t go far enough. And if candidates list specific improvements they want to make to those new laws, that’s worth listening to.
Although the new law lets the State Ethics Commission investigate legislators’ compliance with the ethics law, it doesn’t give those investigators any extra tools — or resources. Nor does it increase penalties in a way that would serve as a stronger deterrent against wrongdoing. Any candidates promising to correct those shortcomings ought to get two checks in their column. (It would be great to let the Ethics Commission actually enforce the law, but there’s no reason to think the Legislature will do that, and we get 90 percent of the benefit by allowing the commission to do the investigations and make its findings public.)
The new disclosure law requires public officials to tell us the source, although not the amount, of nearly all of their income. (Private pensions, IRAs, disability payments and the like are excluded.) And unlike the previous law that required them to report only money they receive from the government and, in limited cases, government contractors, the new law doesn’t use loophole-creating definitions: It smartly defines income as anything that has to be reported to the IRS.
We need this sort of information to help us recognize when public officials might put their personal interests ahead of the public interest.
It would be better to know the amounts as well, and legislators who promise to push for that probably have their hearts in the right place — although you might ask how they’re going to accomplish that when it was a complete non-starter in both bodies. A more realistic idea might be to try again on a House reform that the Senate rejected in the final negotiations: Make public officials report the amount of income they receive from lobbyists and businesses and organizations that hire lobbyists. Candidates who are ready to push that reform might deserve even more credit than those promising amount-disclosure, because it’s something that might actually have a chance to become law.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.