The Debate We’re Not Having

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Last night, the center of the American political universe was in New Hampshire, where many of those who wish to be the Republican nominee for President lined up for CNN’s John King to disclose whether they like Coke or Pepsi, Elvis or Johnny Cash, or perhaps the most pressing matter, that former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has a distinct preference for deep dish pizza.

Sadly, at times this is what modern American politics has become. A major national news organization felt the need to trivialize – though they said it was to personalize – a time set aside where there was a captive group who actually wanted to learn distinct policy difference that could affect governance going forward.

Back at home, however, the major political story of the day barely received coverage. The Georgia Ethics Commission, recently renamed the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, has suffered ongoing budget cuts and now operates on 60% of the appropriations it received in 2008.

Furthermore, the administrative burdens of accepting and tracking candidate and elected official disclosures have increased. The result is that the commission has often complained that they barely have sufficient staff to receive the paperwork they are required to track, and have no money left over for ethics investigations and enforcement.

Georgia ethics watchdogs openly wonder if that is by design.

Georgia’s system of ethics enforcement is largely a self-policing mechanism, with House and Senate leadership generally responsible for investigating the other should a complaint be filed and require their disposition. Much like the cold war when each side had nuclear missiles aimed at each other, the potential of a pro-active ethics first strike was generally restrained by the concept of mutually assured destruction.

During the 2008-09 sessions of the General Assembly, Georgia enjoyed a Speaker who was having an affair with a lobbyist representing a utility for whom he introduced a bill to provide a new pipeline, a chairman of a powerful committee who brought his favorite lobbyist as a date to a Chamber of Commerce dinner while his wife was safely at home, another Chairman who hid in a Senate anteroom when a reporter wanted to question why a lobbyist joined him on a junket to Israel and was listed on the program as a Senate staffer, and yet another representative who threatened to shut down a university when they fired his lobbyist girlfriend.

Time after time, as each of the above issues – and more- were raised, the answer came back from members of the general assembly of “I’m not sure any laws were broken” or “We can’t let a bad apple paint everyone with a broad brush.” Yet one who complained openly about the “broad brush” refused to tell his constituents at a town hall meeting that it was wrong for a Representative to have a sexual relationship with a lobbyist who had business before his committee. Responses like his, and de-funding of effective enforcement, help earn a broad brush.

As ethics became a central campaign issue during the 2010 primaries, the standard party line answer in defense of the status quo was that the solution was to elect “honest people”. Using a past career analogy, one may suggest that banks go out of their way to hire honest people, but also have strict internal controls, audits, and enforcement mechanisms not because their people become less honest, but because they know the temptation when faced with an open vault full of cash is great, even to the honest.

Understanding the consequences of being dishonest is a great motivation to stay clean. Allowing unlimited temptation without consequences is a path to ethical ruin. Georgia continues on this path.

Yesterday, two top staffers of the Ethics Commission left due to budget cuts. One of the positions was eliminated, while the other was told to accept a 30 percent pay cut and balked. Details differ on exactly what transpired, but the net result is that because of continued budget cuts, the bare bones agency charged with enforcing Georgia’s ethics rules is without an Executive Director and Chief Deputy today because of continued elimination of resources for oversight and enforcement.

The vault of temptation remains open for Georgia’s elected officials. Citizen legislators must rely on outside income to make a living, yet they face the same economic realities and hardships the bulk of Georgians are facing. There are many ways to make money as an elected official if ethics are overlooked. And yet from the state Ethics Commission, there are two less people looking today.

14 comments

  1. cheapseats says:

    Crooks will always support anything that results in fewer cops. (see Banking, regulators)

  2. CobbGOPer says:

    “Georgia ethics watchdogs openly wonder if that is by design.”

    It would not surprise me in the least. Means less investigators to look into Nathan Deal.

  3. Calypso says:

    Excellent article, Charlie, but I fear you are preaching to the choir, as those that really need to hear it are deaf.

    • NoTeabagging says:

      Agreed, and we rarely get real news or reporting in today’s media. Celebrity in rehab, weiner tweets, mindless drivel from Sarah Palin, more mindless drivel from candidates seeking early publicity, and legislation reported as sports news rather than really looking at issues. Our media finds infinite ways to copy, paste, and rehash stories without substance and repeat them for days on end, wasting the precious media ‘news’ hour with stories that never need fact checkers or heaven forbid ask the viewer to question and seek the truth on what was reported.

  4. theendisfar says:

    Is the issue that we need more watchdogs or that we need to watch out for too much?

    The concept of Limited Government is not limited to the Federal Government, it must be employed all the way down from the Feds, to the States, to the Counties, Cities, and all the way down to the Home Owners Association. Our Rights are closely related to our Responsibilities. If we delegate all of our responsibilities to government, then we have little left for ourselves and over time government feels they have the Majority Rule and Authorization to monopolize our Rights/Responsibilities.

    If we limit what those who we call to “Represent” us can do, then the role of the watch dog is reduced to a manageable activity. The idea that our “Representatives” can do anything with a Majority Vote is about as asinine an idea that anyone could have come up with. If States or Counties are not limited to what they can do for/to us then it is We the People who are then Limited, not our Government. That’s called servitude, whether voluntary or not.

  5. ZazaPachulia says:

    Charlie, even if it seems to fall on deaf ears, keep writing about this.

    There are two types of watchdogs–the commissions and the media. With the entire press corps covering the going-ons beneath the Gold Dome currently consisting of a part time AP reporter, Walter Jones and Jim Galloway, we need Peach Pundit to bring this up ad nauseum.

    I guess when the voters elect Nathan Deal and Casey Cagle to the top two offices, the rest of the Capitol Gang feels pretty invincible on the ethics front… Georgia might be a good place for Rep. Weiner to restart his political career (after he switches parties, of course).

  6. seenbetrdayz says:

    So, Charlie:

    “Peachpundit or Redstate?”

    Just kiddin, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought the ‘this or that’ segment was totally pointless.

  7. saltycracker says:

    The lawmakers message is no rules, no oversight, trust me.
    It is futile for the citizens absent:

    1. Term limits
    2. Post service: no pension, no benefits
    3. Transparency

    The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.
    Patrick Henry

  8. Quaker says:

    The “standard response” to demands for ethics reform sounds much like the mantra “let the market regulate itself” chanted by Greenspan for so many years – until the market collapsed because, guess what, the market cannnot, by definition, regulate itself. Neither can our antiquated, anti-democratic two party political system regulate or reform itself.

    • NoTeabagging says:

      I agree, and second the motion to end the two party system. Let’s make all representatives independent and force them to think for themselves and work for their constituents for a change.

  9. saltycracker says:

    Greenspan was stunned that execs would betray their own companies for personal gain as set up by the Feds.
    The founding fathers were about limited regulation not no regulation. The debate should be how much not none.

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