Pluperfect Purity

Article excerpt

One of the worst scandals in Kentucky's history saw the former House speaker, two sitting legislators and five former lawmakers convicted in 1992 on a series of extortion and racketeering charges that rocked the foundations of Frankfort's political establishment.

In response, lawmakers, besieged with angry constituent phone calls and letters. passed in 1993 a sweeping ethics reform law that spells out specific policy on such land mine topics as financial disclosures and lobbyist expenditures. It also provides for regular ethics counseling for legislators and investigations of them when the suspicions of a new and powerful legislative ethics commission are aroused.

Kentucky's ethics law has since been characterized, according to Earl S. Mackey, the commission's executive director, as "one of the most comprehensive and strongest in the nation."

But for Walter Baker, a long-time and respected Republican senator in Kentucky, the new law only narrowly skirts disaster. "We might have gone overboard," says Baker, who has emerged as an important critic of extensive ethics reform policies. "The end result is that there has been an inhibition on the operation of state government."

How such widely divergent interpretations of the same law could arise from two public officials dedicated to clean government goes to the heart of the ethics reform movement of the 1990s--specifically, at what point do sometimes narrow and specific ethics laws become cumbersome and just another burden for already harried lawmakers? Or, more precisely, when is enough too much?

"It's a question that legislatures across the country are going to be increasingly asking themselves," says Alan Rosenthal, professor of political science at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, who has recently completed an exhaustive study of ethics standards and reform in state legislatures for the Twentieth Century Fund.

Rosenthal points to an inevitable dynamic that appears to govern nearly every state legislature in a scandal's usually frantic aftermath--the tendency to overreact. "Whenever there is a scandal of any proportion--as there was in Kentucky--the press is likely to call for major reforms while groups like Common Cause use the opportunity to try and get their agenda enacted," he says.

The cumulative result often is a "legislature that eventually has to give in," Rosenthal continues, "and in giving in, they go further then they would have liked to go and further than perhaps it makes sense to go."

THE POLITICS OF ETHICS

Legislative analysts and lawmakers also point to the maelstrom of public cynicism and anger that they say exists today in a culture that simultaneously derogates all elected officials as crooks while explosively demanding stern measures for even the smallest offense.

"What we're creating is a politics of ethics," says Roger Moe, majority leader of the Minnesota Senate where a stern and inclusive ethical conduct law for legislators and lobbyists passed this year. "Ethics today is a political issue. Candidates use it in their campaigns to get elected, and the idea that somehow corruption pervades [the institution], despite all our reform efforts, is a powerful one."

Other public officials say the issue of political ethics has become so potent that legislatures enacting what some critics see as draconian measures are rarely populated with members powerful or brave enough to voice public opposition to bills they privately loathe. "If you're against something like that, people may start wondering what you're trying to hide," says Rosenthal. "In any legislature, it is very hard today to argue against ethics reform. Baker of Kentucky was able to stand up against some of the rules, but only because he has such an outstanding reputation as a legislator."

Ann Bailey, chief counsel to the California Senate Committee on Legislative Ethics, agrees: "The problem with all of the ethics reform is that any time you try to mess with it, to maybe change something for the better, the voters will automatically think you're trying to weaken the rules, which can be a politically tricky problem. …