A Small “Yay” for Ethics Legislation

I suppose baby steps are better than nothing. However, if a few big strides are necessary in order to pull the brakes on a train headed for a demolished bridge, the tiny step is at best wasted energy and at worst a distraction from what’s necessary.

With Rhode Island’s paying-attention class finally having its wait-a-minute moment regarding former Democrat Representative Raymond Gallison (realizing that, hey, something we’ve all known about for years is wrong), legislative leaders feel compelled to sacrifice the unexpected loophole that came into being a few years ago when the state Supreme Court decided that the state constitution, as currently written, does not require legislators to be ethical.

So, are H8189 and S2953 “the Grinch himself cut the roast beast” or “I’ll fix it up there, and bring it back here“?

Although it would be a close judgment, I might be just as encouraged if the proposed constitutional amendment tried something new.  Perhaps legislators accused of violating the Code of Ethics should be required to perform a ritualistic dance symbolizing the good will and transparency of our tribal founding elders, and if the Ethics Commission finds the dance moving (or the dancer well connected and ideologically suitable), it would respond by beating the Drum of Absolution in a complicated rhythm.

Let’s remember a few things:

  • Gallison’s sweet deal predated the Supreme Court’s Irons ruling.
  • This is the same Ethics Commission that sees no problem with union members’ sitting as government officials and negotiating with their own unions, as long as it involves another local.
  • This is also the same Ethics Commission that doesn’t believe it’s possible for government officials to act unethically as long as all of the participants in an incident are acting in official government roles.

To be clear: The proposed constitutional amendment to make legislators subject to review by the Ethics Commission is a positive, and I’ll vote for it.  But let’s not pretend implementing it resolves any of Rhode Island’s problems with corruption, or with anything else.  Indeed, the story of this issue — from the absurd judicial ruling to the multi-year fight to clarify the law to the ridiculous incident that has precipitated the change — is evidence that something bigger needs to happen.

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