This drives me nuts.
Because it’s important to government, politics, and democracy. Because it’s vital to rebuilding public trust. Because it’s rolled out in election years. And because so little ever comes of it.
Ethical behavior should be the core of public service. In Pennsylvania, it’s not even the skin.
Time for some straight talk about why.
Gov. Wolf, who’s seeking reelection, offered what his office billed as “a major new ethics reform initiative” this week. It’s labeled “Citizens First” (I suppose to evoke an opposite reaction to Citizens United).
You tell me if this sounds “new.”
Gift bans for public officials. No pay for lawmakers or top state officials when there’s no on-time budget. Curb influence of special interests. Campaign finance reform. Require receipts for lawmakers’ expenses.
Great ideas. Needed reforms. Any one of them could signal to taxpayers there’s a modicum of interest in actually putting citizens first.
Yet these things have been carped on, hammered at, promoted, and pushed by many (including myself) for decades.
News conferences are held. Bills are introduced. Proposals are made. And what’s happened? Next to nothing.
Because these issues share a common curse. Because they rest – no, they lay, in legislation-induced comas – in the chambers of the state House and Senate, where good ideas go to die after years of hospice.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Gift bans for public officials are as basic as you can get to convey the notion that all seeking business with or action from their government will be treated equally.
Yet Pennsylvania’s nationally known for allowing lawmakers to take unlimited gifts such as meals, sports tickets, overseas travel, from lobbyists and special interests as long they voluntarily report them to a toothless, underfunded (don’t laugh) State Ethics Commission.
Wolf bans gifts to administration officials. But the legislature parties on, with no signs of interest in calling the party off.
“No budget, no pay” would without question end the norm of late state budgets, and hold the legislature and administration accountable for annual failures.
So, all that’s needed is for our overpaid, over-perked, $300 million per year, low-performing lawmakers to pass a bill (there’s always one pending) to stop their pay when budgets are late. And then they’ll outlaw the sun and the moon.
Campaign finance reforms such as limits on contributions and restrictions on PACs would go a long way to level democracy’s playing field.
But Pennsylvania’s a political Wild West, one of just 11 states with no limits on contributions. Which benefits incumbents. Which, in large part, is why half the legislative races last election cycle had only one candidate.
It’ll take a whole new class of Pa. lawmakers – people more interested in public service than self-service – to alter this basic dynamic of our state’s political culture.
Receipts for expenses, required in the real world, unnecessary in Harrisburg, would make lawmakers appear more ethical and probably save tax dollars.
Lawmakers rack up $2 million a year in expenses, according to annual reporting by the Harrisburg Patriot-News/PennLive.
Why don’t all them justify all their expenses? Don’t have to. Not their money.
Reaction to Wolf’s “Citizens First?” Crickets. I heard nothing from legislative leaders or legislative caucuses. Nothing from his Democratic Party.
And reaction from the GOP was a shot from party Chairman Val DiGiorgio calling the proposals “a political stunt,” and pointing to Inquirer and Daily News reporting on Wolf’s recent contributions from PACs.
Where is the follow-up? Where is the commitment to change?
If this was truly aimed at ethics reform – more than words, more than a one-day headline – the governor, lawmakers, state candidates, and party leaders would gather for a public summit to fully air and reach consensus on measures to enact.
Talking about ethics is easy. Action is what’s needed.