IN PERCEPTION VS. REALITY, PERCEPTION TOO OFTEN WINS
Any time you hear politicians talking about “perceived” problems, look out. They’re almost certainly actual problems.
Earlier this week, acting Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall announced a policy change that would prohibit any former department employee from working on DOT-contracted projects for one year after leaving the employee leaves department. The policy change came three months after The Nerve reported on the practice. The policy change was presented as a solution to “perceived impropriety,” but my guess is that DOT wouldn’t change policies unless agency officials acknowledged the problem went beyond perception.
But what about lawmakers?
Many state lawmakers – and particular our legislative leaders – are eager to address ethics reform, and specifically the issue of self-policing, not, I think it’s fair to say, because they’re really appalled by the fact that lawmakers get to adjudicate each other’s ethics violations, but rather because they want to get the public off their backs. Judging from their behavior during session, in other words, lawmakers view legislative self-policing as exclusively a “perceived impropriety.”
For example, when the Senate appeared early in session to want to address the issue of self-policing, the bill members began debating would have reconstituted the State Ethics Commission into an eight-member commission with four gubernatorial appointments and four legislative appointments (two non-lawmaker nominations by the Speaker and two by the Senate President Pro Tem). This proposal would have preserved the House and Senate Ethics Committees’ power to conduct follow-up hearings after a finding of probable cause by this new Ethics Commission, and it would have allowed the committees to punish lawmakers – assuming punishment was thought to be in order – for violations of the Ethics Act.
In short, we would have gone from straightforward self-policing to a more convoluted form of self-policing. Perception dealt with.
As if that weren’t bad enough, when the bill got to the floor it was made worse by an amendment that would have created a joint legislative ethics commission to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers and their staff. The commission would have been made up of two senators, two House members, and five non-legislative members (three appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the General Assembly, and two appointed by the attorney general).
Not only, then, would self-policing have remained. The amendment would have diluted what little authority the governor-appointed Ethics Commission has over members of the legislature.
Fortunately, neither of these proposals passed the Senate in 2015. I say fortunately because they were aimed at combatting perception – not aimed at reforming a corrupt system deliberately designed to protect politicians from the consequences of ethical lapses.
On issue after issue, the core of the problem in South Carolina state government is that lawmakers hold power that shouldn’t belong to them, and for which they can’t be held accountable. In the case of legislative self-policing, House and Senate ethics committees can keep most matters quiet, and even if one of them issues an obviously reprehensible decision – letting a lawmaker off when he should have been fined or forced to resign – there is very little likelihood that any one member will be held accountable by the voters of his district.
The state Department of Transportation doesn’t have it together by any means. Indeed, it’s an agency in disarray. But its officials did in one case actually try to deal with a problem, real and perceived. Lawmakers should follow that example.
Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.