Learning from scandal

In November of 2009, Virginia Republicans were ecstatic. We had just elected some of our party’s most conservative legislators to the three top offices in the Commonwealth.

In May, our Republican Lieutenant Governor, widely respected and lauded for his conservative record, refused to endorse the current Attorney General and Republican nominee in this year’s gubernatorial race. Now, our Republican governor, who just a month ago had incredibly high approval ratings despite disappointing his base by supporting a transportation tax hike, is plagued by scandal so intense that speculation about whether he may resign is open.

As a past volunteer in McDonnell’s statewide campaigns as well as a Virginia citizen, I hope there truly wasn’t any quid pro quo.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what Governor McDonnell should do at this point – although I pray he makes the right decision for himself, his family and the Commonwealth.

Regardless of how all of this shakes out politically, Virginia faces a question with public policy import: What do we learn from this?

The temptations to assign blame, to punish, and to fast-track inadequately considered reform legislation are real. Or, conversely, to curse all politicians for greedy fools and swear off of involvement in public life. The gleeful responses from the other party’s faithful – and perhaps some in the legacy media – are also very real. The initial reactions I have seen to the scandals include all of these.

But the sober-minded will recall that scandals – with or without actual lawbreaking – are nothing new. A recurrence to first principles will help us process the present scandal. James Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

This is the classic argument for checks and balances, given the tendencies of people to use public position to master rather than serve their neighbor. Often, individuals get used to using public power to serve their personal interests and forget that all power belongs to the people they were elected to represent.

The current scandals spotlight questions of legality and ethics. What about when things are not obviously illegal but don’t meet the “smell” test. These are questions many of us did not figure we would ever have to consider in a McDonnell administration. But now we are. Such is the nature of the human race, that no one should be considered immune to criticism or exempt from accountability.

So it is in the area of accountability that our questions should focus. They should be deliberative and not merely reactionary. They should not be about punishing a person but about leaving the Commonwealth in better condition than when it was handed to us.

First, Virginia is a disclosure state. That should not change. Disclosure ensures that the public knows what ties their representatives have and with whom they may be aligned – but it does so without limiting in any way the rights of citizens to freely promote their ideas and sponsor the speech/ideas they support. But state legislators should consider whether disclosure rules need to be broadened to include members of an elected official’s immediate family and / or personal loans to their business concerns which fall outside of standard banking practices.

Second, talk of changing the Virginia constitution to expand executive power or allow the Governor to succeed him/her self should be muted. There is a reason for the checks and balances that exist in Virginia government and this is the time to consider strengthening, not weakening, them. If a Virginia governor could serve multiple terms in succession, then it is very likely that Mr. McDonnell would be the GOP’s current nominee, seeking re-election as this controversy swirls around him. The one-term Virginia governorship certainly annoys career politicians and frustrates proponents of an efficient bureaucracy. It is true that a strong legislative branch with very short sessions and a weak one-term executive lacks efficiency. But it also true that this helps protect the Commonwealth’s “citizen statesman” tradition of public servants who have a connection to life outside of the government.

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