THE DEBATE that Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin describes as watching a melting iceberg has been inducing whiplash in recent days. So this might be a good time to review where we are on ethics:
On the first day back at work after Gov. Nikki Haley attacked Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster for killing a requirement to make lawmakers tell us who pays them, the Senate voted 39-4 to remedy his disappointing but correct procedural ruling, by pulling an income-disclosure bill up to the top of its agenda from its burial ground deep down in the contested calendar.
The next day, senators voted 40-1 in favor of that bill, and everybody reported that the Senate had passed income- disclosure requirements.
Then senators came back the following day and did not actually pass the bill — which requires two votes, not just the one that everyone seemed to believe made it a done deal — and hands were wrung anew over its suddenly uncertain fate.
Meantime, the bill to allow an independent body to investigate legislators’ ethics compliance, the one that had looked to be on the fast track the previous week, got bogged down.
Into that mix stepped Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, who vowed to try every day for the rest of the session to force a vote on a bill to combat so-called dark money, by requiring organizations to tell us who bankrolls them if they exist for the primary purpose of influencing our votes. That’s the bill that has the Koch brothers telling lies about our ethics bills in order to derail it. The Senate voted 28-16 to move that bill to the top of the agenda.
Alas, a majority wasn’t enough for Sen. Leatherman’s motion to pass. But it would be enough for a motion made by the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, as Senate Rules Chairman Ronnie Cromer explained, all but promising that he would make that motion if the Senate passed the bill that currently holds the Rules Committee slot on the agenda. That’s the independent-investigations bill that the Senate would have taken up next if Sen. Leatherman had not made a motion for the Senate to adjourn.
There are two important take-aways from last week’s events:
▪ The Senate is completely unpredictable. Predictably so.
▪ There is an obvious compromise to be had on ethics.
Not much needs saying about the Senate’s unpredictability. Just when you are sure you know what will and won’t pass, what has and hasn’t passed, where there is and isn’t consensus, everything changes. This is because the Senate can do anything by unanimous consent, and on the flip side, a single senator can easily tie up the Senate, and senators don’t hesitate to use bills like pawns in a chess game, sacrificing them as needed to prevent votes on the bills they really want to kill. Until the lieutenant governor and the speaker ratify a bill, there is always a way senators can undo what looks to be done.
But there is much to say about that possible ethics compromise, because no matter how impossible it might seem, nothing is impossible in the Senate. Maybe unlikely, but not impossible. (See previous paragraph, and the 10 before that.)
Most rational Republicans in the Senate support all three ethics bills, as do most House members, who passed them last year by a cumulative 314-5. You can never know for sure, since it is the Senate, but based on last week’s vote, nearly all the Senate’s Republicans and Democrats seem to support the income-disclosure bill. That should pass this year. Unless it becomes a pawn, or gets blocked by a pawn.
But Senate Democrats, Sen. Leatherman and one or two more Republicans oppose letting an independent entity investigate complaints against legislators. And the Senate’s Crazy Caucus — a fluid minority of Republicans who could kindly be called libertarians — opposes shining any sunlight on dark money. I suspect, but can’t know for sure, since it’s dark money, that they count on dark money to get re-elected in spite of being … crazy. (See Bright, Lee.)
Usually, the rational Republicans prefer to work with the Democrats, because they’re not … crazy. But after trying for years to come to an agreement on ethics, and with Gov. Nikki Haley clamoring for income disclosure and independent investigations but not an end to dark money, the rational Republicans cut a deal with the crazies: Help us pass an income-disclosure and independent-oversight bill, and we won’t try to add dark money to that bill.
That agreement was working until Mr. McMaster ruled that income disclosure and independent investigations couldn’t be voted on in the same bill. And that appears to have opened the door for a re-alignment.
If some sort of ethics bill actually passes, someone’s going to end up unhappy — either Mr. Leatherman and the Democrats because dark money is not addressed, or the Crazy Caucus because it is. It looks like Mr. Leatherman and the Democrats have just been given a second chance to decide which it will be. We should all hope they make the choice that does not leave them unhappy.
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.