Columns » John Brummett

An idea for our newly muscular GOP

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Today I wish to provide a little history for the flood of new Republican state legislators soon to invade Little Rock. This lesson is offered in the spirit of cooperation and in the interest of good government.

Some might call these lemons, meaning these new caucuses of 44 Republicans in the 100-member House and 15 Republicans in the 35-member Senate. But lemons provide lemonade. And there is less innate partisan polarization at the state level than nationally.

So the history:

Early in my days as an opinion columnist, which takes us back to the late 1980s and the Arkansas Gazette, I adopted as a bit of a cause the need for ethics reform in the state Legislature.

The need was dire indeed.

The state lacked even a basic lobbying disclosure law by which registered lobbyists would make public accounting of the money they spent freely and sometimes lavishly to wine, dine and otherwise influence and underwrite voting members of the General Assembly.

Then-Gov. Bill Clinton, not lacking political savvy, took the cause and ran with it. He called a special legislative session to put restrictions — public disclosure requirements, mainly — on lobbyist spending.

Clinton's ethics reform bill passed the House. But it got heavy-handedly blocked in the Senate State Agencies Committee by the chairman, felon-to-be Nick Wilson.

There was a young state senator at the time named Mike Beebe and he tangled with Wilson on that point and others. Beebe's ever-moderate position was that he favored ethics legislation that would emphasize disclosure rather than prohibition — a statute that would not outlaw activities but deter them by the hammer of public disclosure.

So Clinton, in the middle of a four-year term, led a campaign to get signatures and refer lobbyist disclosure to the voters as an initiated act. It passed overwhelmingly, of course, as a good-government issue always will when the voters get a shot at it. Clinton went on to some reasonable success.

That's the history lesson. The context is that we still confront a dire need for ethics reform in our legislative culture and that this influx of Republicans provides an opportunity.

Yes, lobbyists must make general disclosures now. But they have found ways to skirt requirements, mainly by sharing expenses to get below reporting thresholds.

More to the basic point, lobbyists continue to curry favor by feting legislators who have resisted as somehow impractical the occasional calls, from here and elsewhere, for an outright ban on any lobbyist expenditure in behalf of a legislator — a Walmart Rule, as it is known.

If Walmart's integrity requires that a buyer not accept even a cup of coffee from a vendor, then why does our state government's integrity not similarly require that a legislator be barred from accepting even a cup of coffee from a lobbyist?

It's not impractical. It's inconvenient.

We need to close the revolving door by which legislators in the term limits era can make laws one day in behalf of a business interest that can reward them with hiring as lobbyists the next day.

It also has become apparent that we need tighter controls on legislative expenses, both in what legislators claim for conference fees and travel and in expense reimbursements for visits to the Capitol that they either did not need to make or did not, in truth, actually make.

Our newly muscular Republican minorities in the state Legislature could make good use of themselves — and do themselves a world of good politically — by championing real and meaningful ethics reform.

They could put the onus on Beebe, who needs to use this occasion of his second and last term to consider a legacy that perhaps would transcend mere effectiveness. Maybe it is time in Beebe's political life for him to move past disclosure and into prohibition.

If the Democrats decline to go along, Republicans could always turn to their own initiated act and enjoy the convenience of soaring to their next term on the wings of their good-government ballot initiative.

I always said we needed fewer Republicans in the White House and more Republicans in the statehouse.

Let us see if that is so, at least in regard to the second part.

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