Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

EDITORIAL >> Let people vote on ethics

The Jack Abramoff scandal and the associated corruption involving Republican congressmen and White House officials has sent nearly every politician in Washington and many in statehouses across the land scrambling for cover. Everyone wants to stand behind some proposition to regulate the behavior of lobbyists.

Congressional Republicans rushed out a plan to regulate lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, including travel, but it would do little to change the culture. A Democratic plan is a trifle stronger, but no Democratic proposal stands a chance of even being considered in the House of Representatives. When a handful of lobbyists, congressional aides and congressmen are trundled off to prison or had a metaphorical wrist slap, Congress will have made a few celebrated reforms that will make the dirty work of lobbyists only a little more complicated. Just as the post-Watergate reforms of campaign financing did not end the requisitioning of public office by wealthy interests the post-Abramoff reforms will not free lawmaking from the soft bribery of special interests.

But could it happen at the state level? A few northern states have adopted rigid ethics laws that are worthy of the name “reform.” Outraged by the behavior of corporate lobbyists in killing his school tax program in 1987, Gov. Bill Clinton drafted an ethics law and got it ratified, but neither it nor subsequent campaign-finance reforms did much to slow the corruption of the statehouse.

Now, one after another candidate for constitutional office, principally attorney general and lieutenant governor, is outlining legislation that actually would address the problem by outlawing gifts to elected public officials. Former Rep. Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith, the Republican candidate for attorney general, said last week that he would draft a resolution that would do it constitutionally and also empower the attorney general to prosecute violators. But we do not need to put either ethics rules or criminal laws in the Constitution.

Prosecuting Attorney Robert Herzfeld of Benton, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, proposes legislation that is simple, direct and effective. Lobbyists could not buy a legislator or the governor even a cup of coffee much less fly him to the NCAA basketball tournament. Former legislators could not lobby the legislature for two years after leaving office and the penalties for ethics violations and public corruption would be stiffened. Now, violators gaily pay a small penalty and go their merry way.

State Sen. Jim Holt of Springdale, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, says he is preparing legislation almost identical to Herzfeld’s. Good for him, although he will never have a chance of introducing it even if he is elected. Lieutenant governors cannot sponsor legislation or try to steer it through the Senate, where they preside.

But outlaw a cup of coffee? Legislators deride such hound’s-tooth righteousness. Their votes, they insist, cannot be purchased by a cup of coffee, dinners or even expense-paid trips to Mexico. Gov. Huckabee takes umbrage at suggestions that the tens of thousands of dollars in gifts that he has accepted ever influenced a single official act, even the honorary appointment of people who tendered the gifts. Perhaps not, but how do we know?

Gov. Dale Bumpers had it right. From the day he took office as governor in 1971 until he retired as a United States senator in 1998 he returned every gift with a form letter explaining his policy. Some were offended. His return of a Rolex watch (price tag still attached) to a man who wanted to be reappointed to a desirable state commission soon after Bumpers’ election in 1970 earned the governor an assassination threat.
Unless gifts of any denomination are outlawed, prohibitions are simply unworkable. Tens of thousands of dollars can be funneled through a $100 loophole.

But Herzfeld’s excellent bill is not going to become law. If he is elected attorney general he may find a sponsor for it, but the Arkansas General Assembly will not pass it. It will not get a “do pass” from a single committee of the House or Senate unless it can first be eviscerated.

Only the voters of Arkansas can do it. Some fine civic organization — one of the political parties perhaps — can bring all the outrage to a
salubrious conclusion by taking Herzfeld’s, or Holt’s, good ideas and putting them on the ballot as an initiated act.