The General Assembly is approaching “Crossover” for the 2015 legislative session. Crossover – February 11 – is the deadline for the Senate and House of Delegates to approve bills from their respective chambers that will be sent to the other body. In the House, many hundreds of pieces of legislation including most proposed by Democrats have been deep-sixed at the Committee level, or even before. Interestingly, a few of the good legislative ideas proposed by Democrats have been re-animated as new bills, but now sponsored by members of the other party. This phenomenon has been known to occur when House leadership believes a member from a “purple” district may benefit in the November election from passing the legislation. Frankly, though, when legislation is passed that is good for citizens, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.
As I write this column, we have not yet reached Crossover and a large number of bills remain outstanding. Monday, the House of Delegates voted on about 70-plus mostly technical, non- ideological bills. The House Leadership seems intent on minimizing controversy, perhaps to better position themselves for upcoming work on the budget and/or attempting to reduce the risk to incumbents in our increasingly purple Commonwealth.
One area high on my agenda at the start of the session was ethics reform. Last year the General Assembly sent the governor an ethics bill that tightened reporting requirements and created an Ethics Commission. Governor McAuliffe vetoed the bill, citing the weakness of the enforcement mechanism. His reasoning was that enacting this limited bill would remove the issue from the agenda but with little change in the status quo. I agreed with this decision.
As the Governor expected, ethics legislation was back on the table this year. I offered legislation, but it did not make it out of committee. I strongly believe that the political establishment owes Virginians a comprehensive ethical overhaul that fully addresses pervasive conflicts of interest that create public cynicism regarding integrity in government. To borrow a way of thinking about this problem from the educational reform movement, I believe that today government suffers from “the corruption of low expectations.” By this, I mean, that the public has become conditioned to politicians of both parties acting fully within the law and current ethical standards, but obviously pursuing their personal interest. By which I mean (1) politicians are perceived to act primarily to get re-elected, which means appealing to the base often supersedes serving the common good; and (2), politicians are suspected to act on behalf of the economic interests of narrow constituencies based on quid pro quo relationships. Whether accurately or not gifts, trips, tickets to events, campaign contributions and employment options are seen as the currency of these relationships.
One indicator of the problem, I think, is the abandonment of the terms “statesman” and “statesmanship” from the language of politics. Formerly, the term, statesmen, was reserved for politicians who defended the common good, independent of personal interests and beliefs. Almost by definition, statesmen worked across the aisle, because it is obvious that no single party representing narrow interests could possibly have a monopoly on good ideas.
Politicians are most comfortable legislating symbolic behaviors like accepting gifts. We are less comfortable extending the requirement for financial disclosure to include all appointees –paid or volunteers – who oversee or provide sustained advice to government. We resist requiring full disclosure of individuals making campaign contributions, even those made through “front” organizations. My bill to limit state government employment options for legislators who retire or resign did not make it out of committee.
The public must hold politicians accountable for ethical behavior. While I think the McDonnell case is an aberration, the existing laissez faire political culture was certainly an enabler. We need to enact a legal framework and institutional checks and balances to establish an exemplary political culture that is worthy of our proud origins as a Commonwealth.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]