ONE REASON voters are disgusted by politics is that so many politicians mislead us about what they can do and then disappoint us when they don’t do it. A less-acknowledged reason is that people who have a vested interest in making use disgusted lie to us about what’s going on.
For nearly four years, most Senate Republicans have worked hard to pass the ethics reform bill that Gov. Nikki Haley demands — one that requires legislators to tell us where they get their income and allows someone other than legislators to investigate their compliance with the law.
Last time out, opponents stripped out independent investigations, and supporters killed their own bill rather than allow a sham bill to pass. That was more than a year ago.
Then in February, reformers somehow managed to get a House-passed ethics bill set on priority debate status. There’s a huge gulf between “placed on priority status” and “passed,” but it’s the only chance we’ve had in more than a year to inject some ethics into our ethics law.
Enter Americans for Prosperity, the flagship organization of the political network overseen by the industrialist billionaire Koch brothers. They’re the carpetbaggers I wrote about last month who used deception and intimidation to help kill the gas tax hike.
You might think such a vehemently anti-tax, anti-government group would be all over the idea of making it easier to see our legislators’ conflicts of interest and more likely that they’ll be punished if they violate our law. You’d be wrong. On March 17, the organization sent out blast emails warning about the “unEthics” plan that could be debated in the Senate.
The letter myopically cast the four-year effort to overhaul our law as an attempt to silence gas-tax opponents and claimed that the legislation would:
“Restrict your Constitutional right to free speech
“Expose you to intimidation by powerful politicians
“Make it easier for politicians to hide who pays them
“Allow politicians to police themselves for corruption”
In case anyone missed the point, the letter continues: “Don’t let the politicians take away our right to free speech. Don’t let them make it easier to hide who pays them. Don’t let them make any ‘behind closed doors’ deals like they did on the gas tax hike!”
Voters who click a link can send an email to their senator with this message: “As your constituent, I urge you to kill all ‘unEthics’ bills this year. These proposals (like S.1, H.3185 and others) would restrict my Constitutional right to free speech, make it easier for politicians to hide who pays them and deny independent investigations into ethics violations.”
Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?
It would be — if even a single part of it were true. It’s not.
A few of the words may be technically true, but only if you rip them completely out of context and plop them down in some alternate reality.
Here’s what is true:
▪ At the time AFP sent out its attack, all the bills in the Senate required legislators to tell us more than they do now about who pays them. Now, the extra income disclosure was thrown out of the bill under debate on Thursday because it was written in a way that violates the Senate’s anti-bobtail rule. But that just means we’d maintain the status quo if reformers can’t solve this problem — not that we’d get less information..
▪ All the bills in the Senate allow the House and Senate Ethics committees to find legislators guilty or innocent of violating the ethics law — as they always have. But the bill whose revival prompted the AFP hysteria, the bill the Senate started debating on Wednesday, would for the first time require the independent State Ethics Committee to investigate legislators, and release its findings to the public. That bill, by the way, is the only one there’s ever been any chance the Senate would debate this year.
▪ None of the bills restrict anyone’s “Constitutional right to free speech.” What some bills do is require big-money groups — AFP leaps to mind — to tell us where their money comes from if trying to influence how we vote is their “major purpose.” That means we could see the names of people who donate more than $100 to such groups — just like we already see when people give money to politicians’ campaigns.
But even if you think that restricts your right to free speech or exposes people to intimidation (pot: see kettle), here’s the kicker: The bill whose revival prompted the AFP hysteria — which, again, is the only bill there’s any chance the Senate will debate this year — does not include that requirement.
I understand why AFP is terrified of even the remotest possibility that it would have to tell South Carolinians how much money it is spending to distort our votes, and where its money comes from. I would be too if I ran an operation like this.
What this latest salvo shows is that it is so afraid of having to come clean that it will go to any lengths — even lying about our ethics bills, and sacrificing the independent investigations of legislators and legislative income-reporting requirements — in order to remain in the shadows.
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 @CindiScoppe.