What Ethics Laws Can’t Fix

It is the end of the second week of the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly and as promised, a new approach on ethics has been filed as House Bill 1002. I have read it once. I am hopeful I won’t ever read it again.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some good stuff in it. I like the idea of the creation of the office of legislative ethics being housed in the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. LSA is the most important unknown agency in state government and painfully ethical every day–which is of course the only way to be. From the time of your first little white lie, we all know how easy life can be made sometimes without brutal honesty and personal ethic as a foundational rule. It’s like wishing the Patriots well. It’s polite and harmless to do, but no one here really means it.

The rest of the bill however, is only as good as the people to whom it applies, and to whom it will apply in the future. In other words, those who lack the ethical standards that the public should rightfully expect from its elected officials will simply work around this proposed law. And it will be simple.

The bill changes reporting thresholds, adds some required ethics training, requires disclosures of family members who register to lobby, etc. All of these things are reasonable requirements, and if compliance is full, I guess there will be more publicly available information about our legislators. The question is: will the public ever seek, read, or understand any of it? Doubtful. And shame on the public for not doing its part. And here is the Contrarian point of the week: It is the public that needs to step it up.

Now, it is commonly presumed that this legislation was filed in response to ethics allegations involving former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and former State Representative Eric Turner. After reading the bill the one time time I mentioned above, I don’t immediately see how either of those situations would have been prevented, or handled in a significantly different manner if HB 1002 had been applicable law at the time. I could be wrong about that, but I am committed to just the one read of it.

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma said Thursday that “we are worried about the reality of whether people trust their government.” I am also. And in that regard, I blame the public more than the legislature. There is no real public outcry demanding higher standards in response to the aforementioned ethical incidents. Rep. Turner was re-elected in a landslide on the heels of his dust up. So thank you for trying, Mr. Speaker, but I’m not sure our public deserves the extra effort.

“I believe House Bill 1002 provides some common-sense steps in helping us improve the expectations we have in ourselves” was the comment from House Minority Leader Scott Pelath. Again, I agree. With this bill, legislators will be raising their own expectations. A passive public probably won’t feel any better though. Mostly because the public doesn’t know how ethical the bulk of the body and the industry around it already is. Oh well, this is one lobbyist that has had this conversation countless times with uninformed know-it-alls and I have changed exactly zero minds on the general issue.

This year’s bill won’t change public perception about legislative ethics. Not because it’s wrong or because it’s a bad bill. It’s because the public is uninvolved. And that is the public’s fault. “Gotcha” reporting does get the attention of public officials, but it generally fails at penetrating the apathy of the voting public. And as we all know, the voting public is a mere microcosm of the general public. Odds are against real change in our current level of public engagement.

I wonder what would have happened if we found out all of the details in the Tony Bennett violation file and he had won that 2012 election. Admittedly, it was no Watergate. However, fighting the charges against him while he was in office could have raised the stakes some.

It’s hard to predict what it will take to get the public to engage in its government. I am pretty confident that this year’s ethics bill won’t.