Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: McMaster didn’t kill ethics, but Haley’s doing her best

SC Gov Nikki Haley hugs Henry McMaster on their 2014 election victories.
SC Gov Nikki Haley hugs Henry McMaster on their 2014 election victories. gmelendez@thestate.com

LARRY MARTIN was miffed. By means that still mystify me, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee chairman and other ethics reformers had managed to pull a political Lazarus, reviving a year-long, left-for-dead ethics bill. They had worked through culture-war measures that blocked the bill’s consideration since February, and now the Senate was on the second day of debate.

Except it wasn’t precisely the year-long, left-for-dead ethics bill. It was a narrower bill the House had passed last year, to which Mr. Martin had convinced his committee to attach a larger reform measure.

And just as the reformers seemed finally to have enough votes and reform was about to be raised from the dead, Democrats had discovered a potentially fatal flaw: The original House bill simply created an independent panel to police legislators’ compliance with the ethics law; the larger amendment did that but also required legislators to publicly report the sources of their private income.

Both of those topics clearly fall under the rubric of ethics reform, so there was no problem with the amendment from a constitutional perspective; if the Legislature managed to pass it, the Supreme Court would find no fault.

But a few years ago, the Senate adopted a rule that prohibits adding anything to a bill that is not included in the bill’s summary. Income disclosure isn’t listed in this bill’s summary. Although senators frequently ignore violations of this rule, Democrats were threatening to object. If they did, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster would have no choice but to rule the amendment out of order.

Not thinking it through, I asked, “How many votes does it take to overturn the president’s ruling?” Just a majority, Sen. Martin said, and he continued before I could embarrass myself by asking my next question. “We can’t do that,” he said. “That sets a horrible precedent.”

I was chagrined. Of course he was right: It’s lawless to overturn a correct procedural ruling just because you don’t like it. You might as well just throw out all the rules.

And who would suggest doing such a thing?

Well, other than Donald Trump? Or Gov. Nikki Haley?

Sen. Gerald Malloy did in fact raise the point of order, Mr. McMaster did the only thing an honest person could do, and Gov. Haley … well, she responded like the Nikki Haley we came to know in her first three years in office. The Nikki Haley who believes that the law applies to other people, to the little people I suppose, but not to her.

She responded like the Nikki Haley who had Occupy Columbia protesters arrested for violating laws that did not exist, and that she wouldn’t have had the authority to enforce even if they did exist. The Nikki Haley who directly defied state law and persuaded her political party to put candidates on the ballot who had failed to qualify, in defiance of a direct order from the state Supreme Court. The Nikki Haley who attempted to order the Legislature into “special session” while it was still in regular session, in violation of the state constitution. The Nikki Haley who repeatedly had to be called back into line by state and federal courts — leaving the taxpayers to pick up the bill for defending her lawlessness.

Even our royal governor knows she can’t reverse the ruling of the Senate’s presiding officer — which might be why she got into such a heated argument Thursday as she tried to tell Mr. McMaster how to rule.

What she can do is run to her Facebook page and post a tirade against Mr. McMaster. Which she did after her browbeating failed to sway him. “Never did we think that this Lt. Governor would help the Senate kill income disclosures,” she wrote. “We have fought for this for four years because people deserve to know who pays their elected officials …. Income disclosure was killed by Gerald Malloy and Henry McMaster. There is no good excuse for what happened today.”

No good excuse for Mr. McMaster’s ruling? Perhaps not if you are unconcerned about such niceties as the rule of law.

I doubt there’s anybody in this state who is more upset with Henry McMaster’s ruling than Henry McMaster. Ethics reform has been a passion of his at least since the first time he ran for lieutenant governor, back in 1990. And since Gov. Haley appointed him and fellow former attorney general Travis Medlock to lead her ethics-reform task force four years ago, he has done far more than she has to advance the effort.

You can argue that the Senate rules are too restrictive, or that they should be changed. But you can’t argue that they should be ignored. At least not if you have any decency.

There never was much chance that the Senate would pass the ethics reforms we need this year. At this point, probably the best we can hope for is independent oversight — although that is no small thing. If Gov. Haley truly wants to help, she should leave legislating ethics to people who believe in doing so in an ethical way.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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