The words could almost be considered a threat, a warning shot across the bow from one legislative chamber to the other:
“If the speaker sends a bill that is a total ban (on gifts) and the House has … made a deliberation that they are willing to live under that, then they need to be prepared for that to become law,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle warned almost a month ago, referring to an almost total ban on lobbyist gifts proposed by House Speaker David Ralston.
Cagle’s message to the House was pretty clear: Do not posture on this issue and think that the Senate will save you from yourself. Do not assume that you can pass a strict ethics bill, making yourself look good in the process, and then expect the Senate to play the patsy by killing it.
If you pass it, we’ll pass it too. And then where will we all be?
Since that veiled warning, the House has indeed “made a deliberation” that it is willing to live under a gift ban. In fact, if the House is bluffing in its support for major ethics reform, as Cagle seemed to suggest, it is doing so with gusto. On Monday, it voted 164 to 4 in favor of House Bill 142, the centerpiece bill of Ralston’s gift-ban proposal.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. On the first day of the 2013 session, the Senate tried to cast itself as the more ethical body by adopting an internal rule banning its members from accepting lobbyist gifts worth $100 or more. Senate leaders, including Cagle, were quick to laud themselves for their “decisive action on this critically important issue.”
Then the inter-chamber rivalry began. Ralston declared himself unimpressed with the Senate gift limit, dismissing it as “more of a visor than a cap,” and doing so in Cagle’s presence. His subsequent proposal to ban almost all gifts regardless of value upped the ante considerably and made the Senate’s gesture seem meager by comparison.
So what does the Senate do now? The $100 gift limit is no longer a viable option, and any Senate bill that uses that approach as its standard will be seen by the public as a rejection of reform. The Senate’s institutional pride, not to mention Cagle’s ambition for higher office, will require that it at least match Ralston’s game-changing proposal. And there are certainly places where the Ralston bill can and should be tightened.
The situation would seem to have set up a virtuous cycle, with the two chambers trying to outdo each other in their enthusiasm for reform. But there’s a very real if hidden danger as well.
The nightmare scenario all along has been that the House passes a tough ethics bill, while the Senate passes a different but perhaps equally tough bill. In the final hours of the legislative session, the two chambers reluctantly pronounce themselves unable to come to agreement, which means that neither bill passes. Everybody gets to portray themselves as champions of reform, blaming failure on the other guy, while business as usual continues. A win-win outcome, except for the public.
Could that happen? It’s certainly worth watching. The Legislature has the same ratio of saints to sinners as the population at large, which is another way of saying that beneath the Gold Dome, no saints walk.
But that’s not to say that they have no saint-like attributes. Quite the contrary. As they posture and maneuver on ethics reform, they bring to mind a famous prayer by one of the greatest saints of all, Saint Augustine.
“Dear God,” Augustine prayed. “Please make me good and chaste. But not just yet.”
– Jay Bookman