A Slim Chance for Lawmakers to Self-Regulate

Bidness as Usual


This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

Maybe lawmakers should write a legislative ethics bill that would not take effect for 50 years.

That would remove their instincts for self-preservation, and the fear that they are passing judgment — with the voters watching — on their own transgressions and those of their colleagues.

Asking an active politician to write rules for how to behave in elections and in office is like asking professional athletes to outlaw the drugs, supplements, transfusions and whatnot that make them more successful competitors. Meanwhile, the reputations of honest players come into question whenever their less-trustworthy colleagues break the rules. Or when they operate in ways that are legal but unethical.

 

They know better. They know what has made them successful. They know what they can get away with. And they know what the public cares about and what it ignores.

Steroids are now a big deal, but before we sounded the alarms we all wanted to see the home run records broken. Doping is serious, too, but most of the public ignored it to watch a fellow Texan win a record number of bike races.

Politics has its own performance-enhancing practices. It is hard to tell the straight players from those who cut corners or turn their public positions into personally profitable ones.

The idea of ethics laws is that lawmakers’ behavior ought to be transparent and observable at a time when that information is useful.

Big changes are not required, however, to satisfy voters, who generally support reform but do not generally demand it. Except in the face of highly publicized scandals or political hazards, lawmakers don’t usually tighten regulations on their own activities.

They will have to talk about it before the session ends. The Texas Ethics Commission is up for review under the state’s sunset law, which requires lawmakers to reauthorize state agencies every few years. It’s a chance to revise the agency’s rules, fiddle with its makeup, remake it, empower it or disembowel it.

The must-pass legislation has not yet been debated in the full House or Senate, though it will be up for discussion this week. Some suggestions made earlier in the game didn’t make it into the legislation, and some of those suggestions will be back when the debates take place. For instance:

Gov. Rick Perry, the state’s busiest retiree, wasn’t known that way until he ran for president and revealed that he was legally collecting his state salary and his state retirement at the same time. He played by the rules, because state law doesn’t require the disclosure, and you would have to have a head full of rocks to volunteer that sort of information to voters. That will come up again during the debates ahead.

 

The Sunset Advisory Commission, a panel of lawmakers and citizens, recommends changes to the Legislature. That panel spiked both a modernization of the personal financial disclosures filed by lawmakers and online access to those filings.

Financial disclosures are not exact, but fall in ranges. But the ranges have never been updated; all you can learn about an asset worth more than $25,000 is that it is worth more than $25,000.

Online posting is allowed by anyone outside the government — The Texas Tribune put all of the financial disclosure documents online — but not by the ethics agency itself. That will probably come up again.

Lawmakers complain about being spatchcocked for trivial mistakes — arguing that the words “ethics investigation” can be louder than the words that follow, whether those are “for filing late” or “for stealing $1 million.” They have a point, and that might change with a new sorting procedure that tries to keep violations in perspective.

But the proposed legislation does not include the independent investigations office that other regulatory agencies have. Instead, complaints both large and small would continue to go to the full eight-member ethics commission. There are no audits to compare campaign reports with bank accounts.

“This is an opportunity to make changes, and they’re taking baby steps,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal advocacy group for disclosure in officeholder and campaign activities.

Maybe it would be easier if they were regulating someone else.

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