All of us — OK, maybe just most of us — think of ourselves as honest people.
But in the name of being honest, we should be willing to admit that we’re even more honest when we fear that someone might be watching. That fact doesn’t make us bad; it makes us human. Having a conscience is important, but a conscience is always strengthened by fear that somehow you might get caught.
If that fear diminishes, your conscience has a harder and harder time making itself heard, and temptation grows more powerful. It’s true for all of us, in every walk of life.
And in Georgia politics, that healthy fear of getting caught has all but disappeared.
That’s the real implication of the news that Georgia has been ranked 50th — dead last in the country — in the quality of its ethics laws and ethics enforcement. The legal mechanisms that might help keep our politicians honest simply do not exist or do not function.
And that didn’t happen by accident. Or as Zell Miller used to put it, that turtle didn’t get on that fencepost all by itself.
State officials have stripped the state ethics commission of much of its funding. They have stripped it of the legal power it needs to do its job. They have passed laws that discourage private citizens from filing complaints with the commission. Legislators have even gone so far as to strip the ethics commission of the title “ethics commission,” renaming it the “Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.”
Why? Because getting in trouble with the “transparency commission” sounds so much less serious.
These days, of course, there’s not much chance of anyone running afoul of the commission no matter what you call it. Just last year, when commission employees dared to get serious about investigating ethics allegations against Gov. Nathan Deal, the commission’s executive director and its sole investigator were summarily dismissed.
Message sent; message received.
Meanwhile, of course, Georgia legislators continue to insist on the right to take gifts of unlimited value from lobbyists who court and seduce them, seeking special favors. And the main argument against changing the law? Lobbyists and legislators, we’re told, would just keep doing the same old thing illegally, under the table.
This, from the people who are trying to reassure us that our elected officials are honest.
It is all too clear where this is headed. It might happen next year; it might be the year after that. But ethical arrogance on the scale that we’re seeing under the Gold Dome can only end in one way: indictments and prosecutions.
Again, even honest, well-intended people benefit from knowing that somebody is looking over their shoulder. If the existence of a well-funded, independent and functioning ethics commission makes elected officials a little nervous and uncomfortable, good. That’s exactly what it is supposed to do — comfort in such matters is a dangerous thing.
But if we’re going to be honest — there’s that word again — we have to admit to another side of this problem. Yes, the legal mechanisms needed to enforce ethical standards in Georgia have been dismantled. But that is possible only because the people of Georgia have allowed it to happen.
In other words, it’s not just the legal standards that have disappeared — the political mechanisms that might enforce ethical standards no longer exist either. And to be honest, in Georgia they have never particularly strong in the first place.