House Speaker David Ralston has been fending off calls for tighter ethics laws by counseling patience. Before rushing to pass any new rash of laws, he says, let’s wait to see the effect of changes passed last year.
(Note: This includes material posted originally on Saturday. It is posted here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column.)
Well, the early returns are in. Last fall, Georgia’s weak ethics laws allowed the speaker to accept a $17,000, week-long European vacation at a lobbyist’s expense for himself, his wife and his children, as well as for a staffer and the staffer’s spouse.
For Ralston, in other words, the laws are working quite well. No need to change a thing.
According to the speaker, the junket was a working trip, allowing him to study Europe’s high-speed rail system. (The Washington, D.C., firm that paid his way, Commonwealth Research Associates, is involved in efforts to build a high-speed line between Atlanta and Chattanooga.) And he took his family along on this “working trip” — again, at lobbyists’ expense — because the trip was scheduled over Thanksgiving holiday.
Government, we’re always reminded, should operate more like business. Very well. In private industry, few if any businesses would allow an employee to take an all-expense-paid $17,000 trip to Europe with his or her family, courtesy of a potential vendor or customer. It would be a firing offense.
The same is true for state government employees. In fact, one of Nathan Deal’s first acts as governor was to renew an executive order barring state employees from accepting a gift of more than $25 in value. However, that does not apply to legislators, who represent an independent branch of government.
Such trips are also forbidden in Congress. Last year, for example, U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel was admonished for taking a trip to the Caribbean sponsored by lobbyists. The New York Democrat was required to repay the costs of the trips.
But what Rangel gets admonished for, Ralston claims is fine.
In his short time as speaker, Ralston has gone a long way toward redeeming an office deeply sullied by his predecessor, Glenn Richardson. He is also smart and level-headed, which may not sound like high praise until you remember how rare those traits can be sometimes.
But as speaker, Ralston sets an example and an attitude that other members of the Legislature will follow, just as Richardson set an example and attitude that his members followed. The decision to travel to Europe, family in tow, sets an example that anything goes regarding lobbyist largess.
It’s important to note that the Democrats in their day were no different or better. In fact, their opposition to ethics reform became part of the GOP’s indictment against them.
Back in the early ’90s, for example, House Speaker Tom Murphy fought hard to kill a bill requiring lobbyists to at least report the gifts they shower on legislators and putting a limit of $100 on such gifts. Murphy’s opposition was condemned by this newspaper as “an act of selfishness and contempt for public opinion” and an effort to preserve “a sleazy way of doing the public’s business.”
Eventually, public outcry forced Murphy and his colleagues to accept lobbyist disclosure requirements, which is how we know about Ralston’s trip. But they succeeded in fending off a limit on lobbyist spending, the same limits that Ralston and his colleagues continue to fight. Like leaders of any party or era, they come to believe that they’re entitled.
However, if it’s misleading to frame this as Democrats vs. Republicans, it’s equally misleading to simply dump the blame on politicians being politicians.
Ethical standards are low for Georgia politicians because Georgia voters don’t demand anything better. Politicians abide by the standards that the voters establish.
In other words, it’s also my fault and your fault — our fault — for tolerating it.
– Jay Bookman