Wednesday, February 02, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Ethics reformwithout teeth

The great democratic imperative, as exercised by the Arkansas Legislature, is that when people demand that you change your ways, pretend to do something. So the legislature is about to enact a law that pretends to end the back scratching and influence peddling that has so often characterized state legislatures, and this one in particular.

This is supposed to be an example of bipartisan cooperation and, indeed, Republicans and Democrats collaborated in drafting the ethics bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But ethical misconduct has never been confined to one party or the other, so when there is an effort to keep the gravy train on the track, you should expect it to be bipartisan.

Oh, yes, there is some good in the bills, but it is window dressing. The bills would bar former legislators from hiring out as lobbyists to work the legislature for only one year after they leave the Senate or House. (Gov. Beebe said it ought to be at least two years.) Then they would be free to collect their dues for voting right by the standards of this or that interest.

But the restriction would not apply to current legislators. Only their successors would have to be ethical. Piety must be introduced into legislative affairs gradually, you see.

The bills would tighten the rules on travel reimbursements slightly. When they travel on the taxpayer’s dollar lawmakers will have to charge the state for the cheapest route and conveyance. That will correct a small but enduring abuse. Legislators liked to tack a little family vacation on to their travels to legislative conferences or take circuitous routes to and from the Capitol to raise their expense reimbursement.

Neither bill would do anything to close the loopholes that allow lobbyists to wine and dine legislators and then, almost uniformly, collect their votes on issues of importance to their clients. Legislators, you see, should not have to pay for their own meals and liquor. To pass a law to make them do it would cast aspersions on the integrity of the men and women who serve in the legislature. That is the argument always. A glass or two of premium pinot noir, dinner and an aperitif at Sonny Williams’ Steakhouse would never divert them from their honorable duty to vote their conscience.

At Walmart, taking even a cup of coffee from a potential supplier will get an employee fired. But then Walmart employees are not as virtuous as politicians.