We’ve watched this situation develop in our General Assembly for some time and it has reached the point where we just cannot avoid saying something.
But anyone watching the deterioration of our law-making process must find himself questioning whether it is too easy to buy influence and whether political courage and independence are too easily abandoned.
There is no doubt that the appearance of impropriety has grown in that process. We say “appearance” because we lack specific proof that votes are being bought, that money is heavily influencing procedures, or that lawmakers and candidates are lacking the courage to resist offers that will put them in or keep them in positions of power rather than in positions of service.
Power is narrow and self-serving. Service is broad and self-giving. There have been growing signs that a line has been crossed and legislative independence has been forfeited, and the basic promise made between lawmaker and citizen that is the oath of office has lost its meaning.
The promise, that oath, is in the Missouri Constitution: “I do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Missouri, and faithfully perform the duties of my office, and that I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law.”
Directly or indirectly. Money or other valuable thing. Knowingly.
The oath of office, like the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer, is — we fear — a spoken ritual easily recited without consideration of the commitments required by them.
In truth, all of us would probably be embarrassed by how little we think about that kind of thing, how easily we mouth words and move on. But all three establish principles for the way we live our lives.
Some other time and some other place will be more appropriate for discussions of the philosophies of the pledge and the prayer. Today is a good time to ponder the oath.
These are painful things to say for someone who has watched this process for four decades. And they are not, I hope, erroneous nostalgic reflections on the good old days.
Politics at the state level have always had their raw edges, a toughness that is not publicly visible to those who see only floor debates and committee hearings. Influence always has been a presence in the hallways and the offices. Lobbyists have written bills or substantial parts of them. Threats of retaliation in campaigns have always been made. Favors have always been available for exchange.
But today’s climate is noticeably different. There is a brazenness to the process. And there is a seeming indifference to it.
Critics of term limits warned that imposition of them would leave lobbyists, bureaucrats and legislative staff in charge of government because they are perpetual while the people who write the laws serve only for short times.
The first manifestation of that criticism began to materialize when we increasingly heard one lawmaker debating another ask something like, “Have you checked with so-and-so in the hallway to see if this is okay?”
Today the question is seldom asked because legislators have their cell phones in their hands and — often during debate — refer to messages they are receiving from outside the chamber from this or that special interest representative who is saying whether something is acceptable.
The rules of the House and the Senate bar lobbyists from the floors during debate. The cell phone and texting have made those rules moot. The lobbyists are in the chambers. The walls have been breached.
Lawmakers have spoken for several years of reforming ethics laws, limiting outside influences on the role of senators and representatives in passing the people’s laws. Such proclamations are easily made. But in a world where ethical standards are lacking and the courage to rebuild walls and to rediscover a level of independence that can exist inside them is in short supply, the proclamations are little more than easily recited ritual.
Understand this simple fact: This is the only state that has no limits on political contributions. This is the only state that has no limits on lobbyists’ gifts. This is a state that has no limits on legislators holding fundraising events in Jefferson City during the legislative session.
In recent days, some of our newspaper colleagues who have gone through campaign finance reports have noted the flow of checks to legislators or legislative campaign committees just before or just after significant votes on specific issues.
And four representatives who had the courage last year to go against party leadership and refused to vote to overturn a veto on a tax cut bill favored by a billionaire GOP supporter now have primary election opponents getting money from an organization heavily financed by the billionaire.
The Kirksville Daily Express reported the other day that Dr. John Bailey, who is running against incumbent Republican Nate Walker — one of those who went against party orders to override the veto last year — has gotten $50,000 of the $65,830 he has reported in contributions from that organization. Walker, on the other hand, has had to put $70,000 of his own money into his campaign.
What we have written constitutes nothing more than guilt by association, a concern there is an appearance of impropriety, a series of circumstances that only feeds cynicism and distrust from a general public that blames government for whatever social ill personally affects that voter, a voter who believes the words, “I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law” are, if not a lie, certainly hollow.
Bob Priddy is the news director of the Missourinet, a statewide radio network that provides government and political news to 60 Missouri radio stations. He has covered Missouri politics for more than 40 years. This commentary first appeared on the Missourinet blog.