THE ISSUE: Blaming the Senate
OUR OPINION: Changing ethics laws embroiled in partisanship and legislative power
Partisanship was never out of play in the loud voices about ethics reform in South Carolina government. It ultimately helped doom legislation in the waning days of the 2013 General Assembly.
While everyone is playing the blame game now, the real challenge is to hold feet to the fire and keep the issue hot heading into the 2014 reconvening in Columbia. The election-year Legislature will be the second installment in a two-year session, meaning House-passed legislation is still on the table and can be advanced in the Senate come January.
To read the comments of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and others, however, one would believe ethics reform is dead. And while its demise is exaggerated, there are those who would rather have the issue on the campaign trail next year than settled in bipartisan fashion.
Haley has become the public champion of ethics reform, though it was her problems that prompted emphasis on changes. The House Ethics Committee twice cleared Haley in 2012 of accusations she illegally lobbied for two former employers while a member of the House. The second time, legislators explained their votes by citing ambiguity in the law and promised to push for reform.
As Haley was naming a commission to outline a proposal for ethics reform, lawmakers in both houses made good on the promise and began formulating proposals for change. The governor was politically savvy in seizing the issue for her own, championing major changes and all the while knowing that lawmakers would be unlikely to reach accord on reforms that took away their power to police themselves in ethics cases.
A legitimate debate is yet to be had in the Senate over House-passed changes that would hand over legislative ethics to a committee split evenly between representatives and members of the public. The House plan appears to have constitutional problems related to a provision that lawmakers have the sole right to “punish” lawmakers.
The Senate concept of reform would have the State Ethics Commission investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers and send findings to the legislative ethics committees to determine what if any actions to take. In other words, the final say would remain in lawmakers’ hands.
With the clock ticking down on the session, Haley and House Republicans began publicly blaming senators, particularly Democrats, for failing to debate and vote on an amended House bill on ethics. Democrats, and some Republicans, countered that the legislation arrived in the Senate far too late in the session for ample consideration, particularly with work on the state budget ongoing as the governor and her allies were speaking out.
Nonetheless, a deal reportedly was reached to bring the matter before the Senate in 2013. But it was not to be.
Ethics charges against maverick Charleston Democratic Sen. Robert Ford went public with hundreds of accusations of abuses, leading Ford to resign. Haley and her allies piled on the criticism, saying Ford’s case was proof of the need for changes. Democrats countered that Ford’s case in fact proved that lawmakers CAN police themselves and renewed accusations that the governor is no appropriate champion for reform.
Fact is, all of the political back-and-forth is really no more than political back-and-forth. Getting the Senate to pass its own version of ethics reform in a tight window is asking a lot. This is not minor legislation. But couple the governor’s drumbeats hardening Democratic hearts and tea party Republicans wanting to focus on Obamacare and nullification rather than ethics and there should be no surprise that the matter will have to wait until 2014.
In the end, voters should refrain being suckered into believing that the Senate is to blame for “killing” ethics reform. There remains time to debate the issue and pass changes that are needed in requiring lawmakers to disclose income sources and in eliminating loopholes in campaign spending regulations.
But the matter of oversight by lawmakers will have to be resolved. When considering that South Carolina’s governor is already asking legislators to continue expanding the scope of the executive branch at the expense of General Assembly power, getting them to take away a key power to police themselves is no small undertaking.