Columns » John Brummett

Ethics and other trivial pursuits



Robert Moore, the speaker-designate of the state House of Representatives and a good ol' boy Democrat from Arkansas City, got quoted as telling a reporter last week that he was concerned about substantive issues instead of ethics reform.

So let me get this written before we go further: He instantly took it back when I got him on the phone.

He said that, yes, those were his words, but they were poor choices and that he tried to advance a more fully contextualized point, but blundered.

Moore essentially explained — and not to make excuses — that we have a citizens' legislature in a term-limited era and that the guy who looks up one day to see himself speaker-designate of an upturned legislative culture may not be altogether well-equipped for getting confronted on an impromptu basis in the Capitol corridors by reporters with pens, notepads and recorders.

So what is his real view of ethics reform? It is that he personally eschews getting entertained by lobbyists and that he is aware of abuses that infest our legislative culture. But it also is that he tends to be a plodder and is not ready to jump out in front of a Republican-generated ethics reform parade until he has gathered his facts and assimilated his thoughts.

Indeed, ethics reform was not visible among the "substantive" issues that got discussed by interim legislative committees over the last two years. In fact, it only burst to the top of the media agenda a week or so ago with a column in this space about how these newly muscular Republican minorities ought to make ethics reform and good government their priorities.

Republicans were receptive; a couple were already at work.

All Moore was saying was that he would not be baited into some kind of grandstand play.

Fine. Not getting baited, assimilating one's thoughts — I'm for those.

But there is indeed a cultural disease to be addressed and Moore had best get a sound diagnosis.

For one thing, he must not be soured on the issue by fellow Democratic House members who will do what ethics reform resisters always do: attack proponents as hypocrites. We already hear grumbling from legislative Democrats that some of these Republicans are the worst offenders of expense-padding and lobbyist-dependence.

No doubt that is so. But the purpose of ethics reform is institutional, not individual.

We do not decline to impose speed limits because some people applaud the ticketing of others even as they speed themselves. We impose speed limits for the greater good. We do not decline to impose a civil rights law because some people who preach for it actually are racist. We impose the law for greater justice.

If there is a telling failing in Moore's misstatement, it is this: As a political veteran with a rich personal and family background in state and local government, he reacted instinctively in a defensive way to ethics reform.

Some of these insurgent Republicans will say that Moore "just doesn't get it." Perhaps he doesn't. Perhaps he is influenced by people around him who tell him they never hear anything about ethics reform from the people and that, therefore, the people do not care.

But a smart politician can see that the public is distressed about government generally, finding it insulated, unresponsive, arrogant and perhaps corrupt. People are angered by the abuse of state-owned vehicles, for example. While legislative ethics reform would not address that issue directly, it would respond effectively to it in broader terms of public accountability.

Look for scant leadership on ethics from Gov. Mike Beebe. He is a product of the legislator-lobbyist culture.

That is a culture in which a phone company executive could get telecommunications deregulation enacted in his company's image by handing off his company's self-prepared bill to a clique of influential state senators led by Beebe, and see it passed perfunctorily.

But Beebe does have a sense of when to embrace legislative initiatives. That cigarette tax for a trauma system? That was House Speaker Robbie Wills' baby. Beebe was smart enough to agree to it.

We will know that ethics reform is on the right track if and when Beebe co-opts it.

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