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COLUMN: Missouri ethics reform bills won't cure all wrongful practices

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:35 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

At the onset of nearly every legislative session, a reform movement is rolled out by the party that happens to be in power, as the General Assembly sets out to create new and improved measures with which to police itself and its members. The level of need for this reform is a microcosm of the public’s perception of the collective integrity, character and trustworthiness of its elected legislators. That they are not held in high regard today is an understatement.

At the state level, we have seen Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton who, during his term of office, presided over a political consulting firm with fellow lawmakers as clients. While this was not deemed illegal by the ethics committee, it smacks of impropriety and fails the “smell test.” Two other members of the General Assembly, Senate Democrat Jeff Smith and House Democrat T. D. El-Amin, are currently serving prison sentences for obstructing justice and bribery, respectively. Further, Jetton awaits trial on assault charges.

The offenses for which these former legislators are paying their debts to society pale in comparison to the overt and reprehensible actions in the halls of the U. S. Congress. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives have been offered, by their leadership and by the administration, and accepted special favors for their states and districts in exchange for their votes in cap and trade and health care legislation. Is bribery not a criminal offense in the 111th Congress?

Additionally, when the labor unions balked at the proposed excise tax on Cadillac health care plans, the legislators magnanimously granted them an exception–their health plans will escape this tax until 2018. Accordingly, this exemption is provided to less than 10 percent of the work force while those not employed by union shops pony up. All workers are equal – but are some more equal than others?

Reforming and establishing new rules for ethical behavior of elected officials is laudable; however, it is not a cure all or end all for shady or illicit practices. However, in the way of committees, the well-intentioned, carefully constructed reforms are subjected to so many differing opinions, alterations and transformations that the final product usually proves the maxim: “To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent.”

The notion that ethics and campaign reform are birds of a feather and that by limiting or regulating campaign contributions is part and parcel to solving the ethics problem is an exercise in wishful thinking. Every effort at campaign reform hasn't worked, from the 2002 federal McCain/Feingold Act which amended the 1971 Federal Election Campaign act to Missouri’s off again, on again contribution limits. Sadly, anytime large sums of money are involved in politics, alternative methods are developed to move the funds through less traceable avenues to thwart disclosure.

The solution is not the imposition of more rules, regulations and laws to keep elected officials honest, rather, it is one of recruiting, nominating and electing to office men and women of honesty, integrity and character. Whether we need the help of Diogenes the Greek cynic and philosopher and his lantern or merely a closer scrutiny of potential candidates to determine their values and trustworthiness is moot – a truly honest person cannot be bought.

Among the ethics measures under consideration that make sense are the barring of former lawmakers from lobbying for 180 days after leaving office, full disclosure of outside employment by members, spouses and staff and expanded financial disclosure to include staff and contract agents. However, while it may play well among those who see graft and corruption behind every government rock and tree, the proposed ban on lobbyists buying meals for individual members seems an adolescent insecurity. A legislator who can be bought for a burger and fries or even a steak dinner is our fault.

As for campaign finance reform, there is no way to remove money from political campaigns nor should anyone delude themselves otherwise. Genuine finance reform can be accomplished by agreeing that campaign contributions are protected as speech by the First Amendment but, requiring strict accountability in complete disclosure of all financial sources, deposits and expenditures. Complete and timely disclosure will provide that standard of accountability to keep honest people honest as do fences and locks.

Political factions do differ, best described by Ambrose Bierce's Devil’s Dictionary: “A Conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” But, these can be resolved by selecting candidates who are not for sale.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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