Flexing the ethics muscle: restoring public confidence in government after a scandal is a legislature's prime goal.
In the year since four Tennessee lawmakers and others were arrested m a bribery sting and charged with extortion, their former colleagues in the General Assembly have been busy enacting new ethics laws.
Leaders appointed a bipartisan, joint ethics committee and called legislators into a special session where they created a new ethics commission with broad jurisdiction over lawmakers. They banned lobbyists from giving lawmakers campaign contributions or gifts. And they required lobbyists to report more details about their finances. These are among the more visible of the many ethics and lobbying provisions Tennessee legislators passed late last year and in early 2006.
But none of them would have prevented the scandal of 2005. Those crimes were already against the law, points out Tennessee Senator Jim Kyle, a member of the joint ethics committee that wrote the bills. So why did the legislature pass them? "We felt that if we didn't exceed the public's expectations, we could lose the moral authority to govern," Kyle says.
Though initiated in response to scandals, Tennessee's new laws aim for a higher purpose--to help restore public confidence in government.
And Tennessee is not alone. Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina and other states reacted to scandals in the last few years that legislators felt violated the public trust.
SCANDAL BREEDS REFORM
State legislators across the nation have introduced close to 200 ethics and lobbying bills so far this year. At press time, five states Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Tennessee and Virginia had enacted new laws, with Tennessee's overhaul the most significant. It's too early to tell whether this will be a banner year for ethics reform. Some factors suggest that it might be. It's an election year. And the federal scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several members of Congress has cast a shadow over government.
A January 2006 Harris poll found that only 4 percent of U.S. adults believe the Abramoff scandal is an isolated case, compared to 86 percent who think he is just one of many who happened to get caught.
There's likely a connection between the Abramoff scandal and the long list of ethics bills being considered in state legislatures--75 of which deal with lobbying. It was behind Minnesota Senator Linda Higgins' ethics bill, which, among other things, would require more financial disclosure by lobbyists and would establish a two-year period before former legislators may lobby. The bill's purpose is to ensure the public knows how lobbyists are influencing the legislative process.
"I looked at the Abramoff scandal and thought that, even though it's in Washington, people might start to look at us and think maybe our branch of government is like that," Higgins says. "Maybe we also were getting golfing trips to Scotland paid by lobbyists. Yet in Minnesota, we can't even take a cup of coffee from lobbyists."
THE UMBRELLA EFFECT
Robert Stern, president of the bipartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, understands this umbrella effect. "The public puts everyone in the same field and doesn't distinguish among the various levels of government," he says. "If the president and the Congress are seen in a bad light, so is every other public official."
Stern says legislatures rarely pass campaign finance or ethics laws unless there's been a scandal at some level of government. But, he says, we can't have a law for every situation. "There should be a standard that says you shouldn't embarrass the body."
Connecticut lawmakers were embarrassed not only by the misconduct of their governor, John Rowland, but by the inability of the State Ethics Commission to respond to it. Many of the commissioners recused themselves from the bribery investigations citing conflicts of interest with the former governor, who was ultimately sentenced to a year in prison.
The legislature passed laws in 2005 subjecting contractors to state ethics laws, including gift limitations and reporting requirements. It also abolished the nine-member ethics commission and fired its director. Now the state has an Office of State Ethics, with a Citizen's Ethics Advisory Board.
Not all ethics reforms are the direct result of headline-grabbing scandals. There hasn't been an FBI sting in North Carolina, but there has been a flurry of allegations over the past several years that lawmakers wanted to address. They formed an ethics study commission which, according to House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, who co-chaired it, succeeded in elevating the discussion of ethics, as it looked at the areas of lobbying and campaign finance. "We recommended 10 bills--a good package," he says.
Representative Hackney says that most members of the legislature are vigilant. "They do not violate our ethics laws," he says. "But we need these laws to tell the public that we mean business."
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Florida tackled public perception when it enacted in late 2006 what Senate President Tom Lee calls "some of the boldest lobbying reforms in the nation."
Lee says he has always been uncomfortable with the "wining and dining" that takes place at receptions and events sponsored by lobbyists. "I saw how much money was being spent to influence how our laws were being made," he says. And even though the events were perfectly legal, they "just never seemed right."
He says he set out to change the cozy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists because he believes it precluded the people from having a voice. Lee says the desired effect of the Florida laws was to give grassroots and constituent groups a more level playing field "without having to bear big checks or perks to gain admission to the process."
Lee says it's not always easy for legislators to support ethics legislation. The "gift-giving culture" can be very offended, he says. The new Florida law, which bans lobbyists from giving gifts or hospitality to legislators, is being challenged in federal court by the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists who protests its requirement to report compensation.
DO THEY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
What good are ethics laws? Do they increase the public's trust in government? Ironically, Americans' confidence in government has receded while legislatures have passed more and more ethics laws. According to the American National Election Studies' biennial poll, which tracks citizen confidence in government, public trust declined from more than 60 percent in the early 1960s to less than 30 percent by the year 2000. These aren't numbers to be proud of, but where would they be if legislatures had not focused oil ethics?
Tennessee Representative Kyle says there has been a noticeable change in Tennessee since the legislature enacted ethics reform. He admits that there is still a fair amount of cynicism, but "as a whole, and I can only tell from my constituent communications, it's getting better. The tone has changed," he says.
Kyle says the FBI sting was a wake-up call. "It caused us to take a look at ourselves and see where we were in comparison to other states with citizen legislatures. When you go through this experience, it makes you reflect."
EMPHASIS ON DISCLOSURE
Many citizens may not trust their government today, but at least they can verify certain pieces of information, thanks to laws that require open meetings and legislators to disclose their economic interests.
Transparency is the word of the day, says Courtney Pearre, president of the Tennessee Lobbyist Association. New disclosure laws in Tennessee provide more windows through which its residents can observe the political process.
"I think this type of legislation is good for improving the perception, or really the reality of how the process works," Pearre says. "There is more reporting. There are more limitations on what lobbyists can do and what legislators can do, so I think everyone feels better about it."
In many states, disclosure by legislators and lobbyists is the answer to conflicts of interest. Forty-seven states require legislators to file regular financial disclosure forms showing the sources, and in some cases, the amounts, of outside income, as well as other details about property holdings and investments. This session, 26 states considered or are considering ethics legislation dealing with some aspect of disclosure.
In addition to reporting financial conflicts, rules in 66 of the nation's 99 legislative chambers require lawmakers to reveal any conflicts of interest they have with matters at hand either before abstaining from voting, before voting, or shortly after voting.
But disclosure doesn't erase the conflict, says Utah Representative David Clark. "Lawmakers should decide oil their core values and use them to create a template to place over ethical decisions." Legislators often have conflicts of interest, Clark says. "It's how you handle them that counts.
"Ethics are like a muscle. They have to be used or they get a little soft," he says.
And when legislators flex their ethical muscle, they're strengthening public confidence, which Senator Lee says is vital to our system of government.
"The most important thing we can do as public officials is to enhance the public trust," Lee says. "It's at the core of our democracy. Democracy can't function if people don't trust their elected officials."
NCSL writer and editor Nicole Casal Moore is a former researcher for NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government.
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|Title Annotation:||STRONG ETHICS, STRONG DEMOCRACY|
|Author:||Moore, Nicole Casal|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2006|
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