Bob Irvin, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives for 15 years, beginning in 1972, writes about efforts in the then-minority Republican Party to tackle the lobbyist-gift issue.
Also, novelist Kira Peikoff addresses the push to get a personhood question on the July 31 primary ballot, and what it could mean to award legal rights to embryos.
Tom Sabulis is today’s discussion moderator. Commenting is open immediately after Peikoff’s column.
By Bob Irvin
House Speaker David Ralston was quoted as saying at the Republican state convention last weekend that people who promote ethics reform “are not interested in seeing a Republican agenda.”
When I first ran as a Republican for the General Assembly, 40 years ago, ethics and openness were already a core part of our party’s agenda. The very first partisan floor fight we ever organized was in 1975, for open committee meetings. Every year thatI was the minority leader in the House, and most other years, too, we made ethics and openness one of our major issues.
For more than 30 years, as a growing minority party, we campaigned on the idea that if the people gave us a chance to govern, we’d be different — and we meant, above all, that we would be more ethical and open.
When the delegates to the state convention last weekend passed a resolution in favor of ethics reform (specifically, placing a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts), they were vocally reaffirming something that has long been a part of the Republican agenda.
They were showing that the Republican grass roots haven’t forgotten — even if most of the legislative leadership unfortunately has.
The convention also voted to put a question about limiting lobbyist gifts on the July primary ballot, to allow voters to express their opinion.
Polls show that more than 80 percent of Republicans want limits on lobbyist gifts, but the legislative leadership says it’s a bad idea. They argue that disclosure alone is enough — but if that were true, we might as well legalize bribery, as long as it is disclosed. Let’s see what the people think.
It is very striking that in the current debate about limiting lobbyist gifts, nobody except incumbent legislators are defending the current system. The reason is no mystery: they are the only people who benefit from it, being given overseas trips, Final Four tickets, expensive meals for family and staff, and the like. The only “No” votes at the Republican convention were from people who wanted a limit lower than $100 — preferably zero.
There will be problems with enforcing a $100 limit, as there are with many laws. But just the likelihood that somebody will try to break a law is no argument against enacting it. That is why enforcement mechanisms are needed, such as a strengthened and nonpolitical State Ethics Commission. To reinforce the disclosure laws already on the books, it also has been proposed that legislators as well as lobbyists should be required to report gifts — another good idea.
Details like this, and related ethics reform ideas, are better worked out in legislative deliberations than in convention resolutions, or ballot questions, or newspaper articles. But what the state convention delegates said, and what they gave the voters a chance to say, is: We want these details worked out by legislators who are for ethics reform, not against it.
When qualifying is over at noon today, we may discover that there are some primary races where ethics reform emerges as a major, or even a decisive, issue. I would urge everyone to examine carefully where candidates, including incumbents, stand on this issue and on the broader question of ethics reform.
In addition, there now will be the ballot question about a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts — admittedly nonbinding legally, but very powerful politically.
I would urge everyone infavor of ethics reform to vote for the $100 limit, even if you prefer a lower limit, or a different structure such as legislative reporting of gifts: a “No” vote will be interpreted as a vote against ethics reform.
Republicans, it’s time for us to reclaim the issue of ethics and openness, and to redeem our promise that we made to the voters for so many years — to be something different.
By Kira Peikoff
The state of Georgia may be about to get a lot more populous.
Recently, it was announced that Republican voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot question in the July 31 primary to declare that a “pre-born” child — consisting of as few as one cell — should be entitled to all the legal rights of a human being.
While the Personhood USA movement works to galvanize legislators in about 30 states, the crux of the public debate is over abortion rights, but a related issue deserves a hearing: the effects on human embryonic stem cell research.
Bruce Olwin, a stem cell researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, foresees two consequences of legislation that could criminalize legitimate research: Scientists might flee to states that view their work more favorably — or leave the country altogether.
Alienating an entire contingent of researchers would have dire consequences on America’s ability to compete globally in the field. “Because of the overarching intrusion of religion and politics on science,” Olwin said, “I think it’s going to drive the United States into a Third World science country. We will not be anywhere near the leaders.”
Bernard Siegel, the founder and director of the Genetics Policy Institute, agrees that the Personhood movement represents a potentially major setback.
“Microscopic cells in a lab dish, that by a couple’s decision will never be implanted in a womb, should not be defined as ‘people,’” Siegel said. “Any state aspiring to become a center for biomedical research and biotechnology should not touch a personhood bill with a 10-foot pole.”
Another ripple effect of the Personhood legislation would be an assault on an infertile couple’s ability to have a child, according to Dr. Jonathan Van Berklom, an expert on IVF at the University of Colorado Boulder. The very act of creating embryos in a lab would be laced with criminal liability.
“If an embryo dies in a lab accident or the culture medium is not quite right, and an embryo doesn’t develop, these aspects of IVF — where things do and can go wrong — would become a criminal act,” Van Berklom said. “So some IVF practitioners would stop practicing. People would say, ‘I’m just going to go back to doing OB-GYN’ so they won’t be picketed.”
If Keith Mason, the leader of Personhood USA, has his way, doctors and researchers will do exactly that: retreat. He calls embryonic stem cell research “largely unsuccessful” and “horrendous.”
Perhaps he should talk to Sue Freeman, whose macular degeneration improved enough to allow her to go grocery shopping alone after her participation in a groundbreaking clinical trial at UCLA last year using human embryonic stem cells.
At such an exciting time for the field, the Personhood movement’s robust expansion is sobering.
“Any state passing a personhood measure would surely send the wrong message to the world,” Siegel warned. “Do we prefer the Dark Ages or the promise of 21st century biomedical research?”
The clock is ticking. We’re about to find out.