Wednesday, December 10, 2008

House Ethics Committee: Newly-expanded role, but any real change?

Last week, incoming House Speaker David Clark R-Santa Clara reported on a newly-expanded role for the House Ethics Committee. Good news, right? I would hope so, but I also have a nose for lip service, band-aids, and all things superficial. Maybe it's a good step towards more accountability and ethics reform, but it sounds more like an emphasis on training legislators on what is and is not ethically appropriate so that, in Representative Clark's words, "it reduces the [disciplinary] meetings we have to hold." To be fair, it sounds like legislators have also tasked staff attorneys with drafting 17 new ethics bills, along with a few bills addressing campaign finance and lobbyist regulation. This piques my interest because there is at least some change and attention addressing the essential topic of ethics. However, I still believe the real issues and the most direct and effective solutions are being side-stepped.

On this site, Sara and I have called for at least two fundamental changes in ethics reform, and they bear repeating:

1. Strong, clearly-written, and enforceable ethics legislation
2. An independent Ethics Commission

Ethics Legislation
As you may remember, Representative Greg Hughes was recently reviewed for ethics violations. While the bi-partisan House Ethics Committee cleared Hughes, all eight members signed a letter faulting his conduct as "unbecoming a member of the Utah House." "We request that Representative Hughes take steps to change his behavior," the panel wrote, "and to make appropriate apologies to those who may have been affected."

Part of the reason Hughes was cleared came down to dubiously less-than-clear legislation....language so vague as to blur culpability for any number of otherwise obvious misdeeds.

Independent Ethics Commission

Back in August, Sara wrote an excellent post on the topic of legislative ethics, outlining the process for filing and reviewing an ethics complaint and underscoring some of the current problems with the process....along with the obvious need for an independent state ethics commission. Utah is one of ten states who have not formed an independent Ethics Commission. In our case, we have Senate and House Ethics Committees, intended to be bi-partisan in nature with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Utah also relies on the Attorney General's office to provide ethics oversight.
However, given the recent ethics debacles and their subsequent investigations (or relative lack thereof), it doesn't take much to realize that legislators policing legislators is not an ideal model.
Impress Us, Please!
Believe me, I want to be impressed. No, I want to be blown away by how seriously our legislators take ethics, but let's not be fooled by feel-good reports of changes to the House Ethics Committee if they don't translate into real change. Keep an eye on this committee, the bills being drafted....and whether or not the bills even make it out of the House Rules Committee.