Everyone has an ethics reform proposal. But will they change anything?

ethicsEthics and gifting. They are all the rage in Virginia politics now. Editorial pages are calling for reforms. Ken Cuccinelli has asked Gov. McDonnell to convene a special legislative session on ethics reform, but the Governor prefers to wait for the next regular session in January. House Republican leaders have laid out their ideas for reform and Chris Saxman has put a proposal on the table to ban gifts entirely and tighten reporting requirements. Bill Bolling has released a laundry list of reform ideas.

With all this talk, something, at some point, will be done. And with revelations that Virginia’s alcohol control agency has a possible gift problem of its own, it’s clear that whatever reforms are discussed have to address the entire apparatus of state government.

What will those reforms be?

My occasional writing partner Paul Goldman thinks it’s a matter of closing loopholes. No need for an ethics commission, Paul says. And for self-described conservatives to embrace the idea of yet another rule making government agency? Forget it (and what are they thinking?).

Maybe closing the loopholes, as Paul suggests, is enough. Tighten the reporting requirements too, as Chris suggests, and start negotiations with an outright ban of gifts. But wait until January to begin the discussion? That’s absurd. Any proposals the Governor would make for a regular session’s consideration would be largely irrelevant. He’s out of office, so his leverage over those ideas is zero. It’s a budget year, too, which will consume a great deal of the General Assembly’s time and energy.

Do any changes before then. Consider everything — even an ethics commission, if we must. If timing is a problem, have the special session after the November election, when there are far fewer political points waiting to be scored.

But when the dust clears, will any of it make a long-term difference? I’m not so sure. That doesn’t mean the worthies shouldn’t try. Far from it. The doubts I have stem from a bit of a history lesson Jeff Schapiro offered over the weekend in which he contrasted the relative ethical merits of Harry Byrd, Jr. and Gov. McDonnell. Putting aside Jeff’s desire to inflict additional damage on McDonnell’s character, and his willingness to suspend, for the moment, his enduring distaste for the Byrds in general, there was one thing about the old regime he found worthwhile:

[Byrd] and the conservative political organization of which he was a part — it was led for more than 40 years by his father, namesake and predecessor — wouldn’t tolerate even a whiff of scandal.

This doesn’t mean the machine didn’t watch out for its own. To do so, it occasionally had to manipulate the rules. This required discretion, a watchword of the organization. Its members rejected flamboyance as reflexively as Virginia’s current first family seems to embrace it.

Jeff goes on to recount a couple of instances where the “whiff of scandal” forced out two members of the Organization.

But there is that word: “discretion.” It was more than that:

Byrd and his pals believed they should never become the issue; that their personal affairs should always be tidy, aboveboard, squared away. They knew, too, that they shouldn’t even be perceived as enriching themselves at public expense.

That kind of behavior is easy to enforce in what was essentially a self-policing political machine. Virginia has no such thing today and, for public policy, that is a good thing.

Except when it comes to ethics. Virginia has no one with the stature, coupled with the raw political power, to enforce a code of conduct. No set of rules or regulations, and no commission of ethical scolds, will ever be able to do what Byrd’s machine did for half a century.

I’m open to suggestion on how to bring that code of conduct back to the fore — and seeing that it’s enforced.

Update

I neglected to mention that way back in mid-July, Brian Schoeneman proposed a series of reforms. Brian noted, however, that even his suggestions would not stop all bad behavior: “money is like water – it will always find the cracks.”

And Terry McAuliffe made perhaps one of the dumbest statements I’ve yet heard on the matter of a special session to address ethics reform:

A bone-headed move that sent even a few self-respecting Democrats into orbit. Paul Goldman, for one, wrote that Democrats who don’t want a special session because Ken Cuccinelli are being childish:

Cuccinelli’s support is a GOOD THING if you are a REAL REFORMER. My not-so-smart phone is full of texts and emails saying Cuccinelli is faking, he is just using this as a ploy. My response: That is so childish. Dr. King had it right: When a thing is right, the time is always right. Let’s assume Cuccinelli isn’t sincere, that he is just seizing a political opportunity. My response: You don’t think some Democrats are doing the same thing in refusing to back reform now, willing to sacrifice real reform on the theory they can get more votes by keeping the mess alive through November? “Man up” for gosh sakes. This is how politics works: YOU KEEP YOU EYE ON WHAT THE PEOPLE NEED AND YOU MAKE IT HAPPEN AS BEST YOU CAN. If Democrats keep up this “holier than thou” attitude on reform, they could actually lose a sure win this November. Mark my words.

That’s pretty strong stuff. But Paul also wrote one this:

Anyone who has had any success in politics knows INSTINCTIVELY that you are going to have to force politicians to give up their perks and privileges. They only do it under DURESS, which to them is the threat of suffering a political problem with the voters. None of the special interest groups want ethics reform now do they? This would reduce their leverage!

Worth considering.