This morning, Virginia House of Delegates leadership – apparently acting on their own, without consulting many (most?) members – announced an “ethics reform” plan in response to the McDonnell administration’s scandals. While one’s natural reaction might be, “great, they’re actually doing something to clean up Virginia’s ethical cesspool,” one’s natural reaction would not be correct. In fact, the Post reports, this thing is about as weak as it can be (as I predicted it would be, by the way, several months ago):
…the compromise does not address campaign finance, including the personal use of campaign funds, and some gifts from individuals with a stake in state policy are still allowed. Food, travel and outings paid for by lobbyists will still be allowed. The ethics commission will serve as a resource more than a watchdog. It will not investigate conflicts of interest, only alert the official involved to the issue and provide advice. The commission will conduct annual online ethics training for all elected officials and advise the General Assembly on ethics legislation.
The $10,000 threshold for reporting investments is unchanged, although investments would be reported twice rather than once a year…
In sum, this “ethics reform” compromise is 99% window dressing, 1% (if that much) substance. It is clearly meant to give the impression that Virginia politicians are “doing something” about the ethics cesspool in this state, in the aftermath of the McDonnell administration’s scandals, without really changing anything. For instance, will this “ethics reform” prevent corporations, wealthy individuals, and pro-corporate groups like ALEC from buying our government? Will it prevent those same folks from writing their own legislation? From flying our legislators to France on their dime to “tour a uranium mine” (or whatever fig leaf they come up with)? Will it do anything to stem the tide of corporate money flowing into the system? Will it put our legislators on a more even playing field with the permanent class of corporate lobbyists and interest groups in Richmond? Will it…ok, you get the point; the answer is no, no, no, no, no, and no.
As Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) put it to me a few minutes ago, while this proposal can be viewed “as a starting point for a discussion on real ethics reform, there are loopholes in this proposal that you could sail the Titanic through.” My response to that: before or after the Titanic hit the iceberg?