November 11, 2005
Not A Spectator Event
(Cross-posted from The Pulse)
How simply can I put this? Government ethics reformers should not employ partisanship in crafting meaningful changes to Nashville’s “business as usual.” The disappointing experience, as consistently revealed in media reports, is that our elected lawmakers display far more loyalty to their party bosses than they do to us voters as they wrestle with the various reform proposals. (Side note: could that have anything to do with the fact that too many of us fail to vote?) Their misapplication of loyalty underscores the public’s perception of “back-scratching” and that, in turn, quells civic interest even more. It’s a vicious cycle that can only be broken by a combination of true reform and greater participation. In brief, the reform measures that are needed might take more than one legislative session – perhaps more than one election cycle – before they are complete. You, the voter, will play an integral part in that completion.
The 2006 legislative session will be over by the time we go to the polls to nominate our favorite party’s candidates (August) and decide the class of 2007 (November). There should be plenty of time between June and August to have a summer vacation and to examine your Representative’s and Senator’s individual records on whatever does (or doesn’t) happen with regard to ethics reform. You’ll also be wise to consider the party affiliation of those seeking office, since they will be responsible for electing the legislative leadership. The leaders’ behavior is just as important to consider as that of the individuals for whom you vote. Each one of us needs to participate in a frank discussion about whether ending the General Assembly’s status quo aligns with our typical party preference. In other words, if the person on your ballot who is more likely to promote clean, open government happens to have a different letter beside his or her name than the one with which you’re comfortable, it will be time to seriously consider leaving comfort and taking that bold risk. Obviously, there will be other factors to consider. I urge you, though, to avoid underestimating the importance of reform when casting your vote.
It appears somewhat unlikely that solid reform will be enacted by the 2006 session. This is why your vote later in the year is so important. You cannot expect to rely on a few “someone elses” to effect the kind of systemic change that all signs show will be imperative. I wish we had the chance to do it now, before the next session begins. However, the current crop consists of our duly elected representatives, and perhaps this next session (or a special session prelude, should one materialize) will provide each of them one last opportunity to show us his or her mettle. Will your elected officials rightfully rebel against the partisan grandstanding and support substantive reform proposals, regardless of their authors’ affiliations? This column will track the Hamilton County delegation’s performance, starting in January.
Just so you know my biases, and can thus judge my assessments: I have previously argued that the primary component of actual legislation should be disclosure (as opposed to meddlesome regulatory measures). I can compromise on lobbyist salaries, and agree to keep those hidden from public view, but lobbyist spending and campaign contributions (as well as those by the lobbyists’ employers) ought to be readily accessible. Legislative sessions and committee meetings (including subcommittees) should of course be included under the “open meetings” law. (What in the world ever made someone think that they were exempt?) I don’t so much care for limiting how much can be contributed to campaigns; but I want to be able to easily look up contributions, see who gave them and obtain a general idea of who that giver is. I can then connect the dots between those contributions and votes that favor the contributors. I would like to see either an independent commission or a much more muscular Registry of Election Finance to ensure compliance with the disclosure pieces, and my deepest druthers would suggest an elected independent commission.
If the 2006 session ends without these or similar changes in place, you know what to do. That election machine’s “lever” is powerfully positioned on its fulcrum. It can catapult the obstructive dead weight right out of office. Use it.