Whether real changes are made next year to Virginia’s disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws will depend largely on public and journalistic interest. The process responds to public pressure. The current situation exists because people haven’t pushed.
Understanding fully that one should be careful what one asks for, I’m going to describe some of the changes I think need to happen.
Ethics can no more be legislated than morality can. Disclosure laws and other rules don’t make people ethical. You can’t know what is in their hearts and minds. Crooks can follow the rules and ethical people can behave honorably yet break the rules.
Imagine a politician wanted to do a favor for his college friend such as get him appointed as a judge or pass legislation to benefit his business. Is he less ethical if the friend buys him dinner or lets him use a beach house? Does doing the favor without reward make him more ethical? Should he be barred from advocating for his friend above other candidates or other companies? Does it make a difference if the the friend is extremely qualified?
Ethics is a tar baby. Show me the rules. Rules can be crystal clear and enforced. As the process of government goes forward, with all its human failings, what we need to do now is clarify and expand the rules and then fully enforce them.
If that imaginary politician took a cash payment to support someone for judge, that is already a major felony with a potential jail sentence. That’s a rule. No bribes. If he is backing somebody out of friendship, the public and his fellow legislators should know there is a personal relationship involved. Again, that should be a rule of the game.
Disclosure, to me, has always been the key. Disclosure is important before voters make decisions on whether to elect or re-elect someone. Disclosure by legislators to their peers is equally important. So is disclosure by those advocating before the legislative and executive branches, whether paid lobbyists or not.
As a lobbyist, you might think I resist disclosure, but I support it. I want others to disclose, and to get that transparency I’m willing to reciprocate. I want everyone to disclose because I want to operate on a level playing field. Some lobbyists and interested parties spend substantial resources wining and dining legislators, taking them on trips, or currying favor in other ways. Other lobbyists and, of course, most citizens have no such opportunity, or they face company business conduct restrictions that prevent them from competing on that stage. When the field is uneven, it should at least be disclosed.
What do people have a right to know about me as a lobbyist? They have a right to know who I represent — who is paying for my services. They have a right to know which matters I am working on, in detail. They have a right to know if I’m supplementing my brilliant arguments with food, drink and gifts. Beyond truly nominal items, all food and gifts should be reported. People have a right to know if my client or I have or have had business dealings with legislators in private life. The dollar amounts are actually irrelevant – it is the relationships that could matter and should be disclosed. Read more.