Columns » Max Brantley

Cleaner government

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I have written often about the need for a law to protect legislators from themselves.

We should adopt a “cup of coffee” rule for ethical conduct. Then, public officials could not accept anything more valuable than a cup of coffee from anyone, except family and those whose friendship predates public service. You could also call it the Wal-Mart rule after the retailer’s strict guide for dealing with suppliers.

One Arkansas ethics regulator has argued to me that such rules are pointless because legislators and lobbyists will always find ways around them. You could say the same about the shoplifting law.

It is true legislation won’t cure greed. This weekend, the New York Times reported that federal lawmakers, using personal PACs as the recipients of favors, had already found ways to get around new curbs on free trips, skybox suite sports tickets and private jet flights for members of Congress.

Existing ethical rules in Arkansas are already widely flouted when it comes to legislative wining and dining. Term limits — said to be an impediment to well-informed legislators — hasn’t slowed the learning curve for lawmakers when it comes to finding free food and drink. With an absolute prohibition, however, a legislator and lobbyist would have to think twice about appearances before sharing a good Bordeaux at a pricey steak house.

It’s never wise to bet that the legislature will act against its self-interest. Example: a tepid effort to slow the use of the legislature as a prep school for lobbyists. Sen. Robert Thompson’s bill would require a one-year wait before a former legislator could become a lobbyist, but it passed the Senate only after an amendment exempted current legislators. If they leave office at the end of this term, they may lobby immediately.

Little has occurred on entertainment limits so far, though Rep. Will Bond has proposed a constitutional amendment in which voters would be asked to extend legislative terms (from six to 12 years in the House) with this carrot: The amendment includes a prohibition on gifts to lawmakers. In other words, voters are offered a little gift to end petty bribery. At least the gift is a good one. A couple of other legislators trying to hang onto office have proposed doubling the length of allowable terms in return for much less appealing favors — putting term limits on county officials and judges (a particularly stupid idea) or a recall law.

I’ve never been a supporter of term limits, so I don’t reject immediately the notion of giving lawmakers more time if they knew on the front end they’d have to pay for their own drinks. But I also think longer terms would be better justified by a tangible show of good faith in advance. Ban gifts. Put a two-year waiting period on post-legislative lobbying. Close incumbent protection in campaign finance laws. It’s bad enough that the winners may retain a slush fund equivalent to their salary. What’s worse is that the slush funds are being raised after unopposed elections and spent to influence leadership elections. Finally, the legislature should end free trips, even for official-sounding educational meetings paid for by nonprofit groups and commercial interests. These are mostly an excuse to wine, dine and golf with a retinue of camp-following lobbyists.

If a trip is worth taking, it is well worth the cost to taxpayers. The lobbyists understand this better than anybody.

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