Our View, ethics in government: Who writes the rules, and who benefits?

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

Idaho expects, and allows, its 105 citizen legislators to police themselves — to write and enforce their own ethical guidelines.

And that’s one reason why the rules are so weak. It is unrealistic to expect lawmakers to write rules without thinking about what helps or hurts them.

That’s why the Legislature has been slow to follow 47 other states that require lawmakers to disclose their finances. Some people in elected public service would rather keep their private information to themselves — and nobody is in any hurry to make them do otherwise.

That’s why, days after a Senate ethics committee publicly cleared New Plymouth GOP Sen. Monty Pearce of wrongdoing, Republicans passed a rule that will allow senators to review the actions of their colleagues, behind closed doors. Sure, it looks terrible, and compromises the integrity of the process. But when senators are writing the rules, it should come as no surprise that they’d write rules borne of personal convenience.

And that’s why legislators have, so far, been unwilling to close the “revolving door” that allows legislators to move straight into lobbying. As lawmakers repeatedly and reasonably say, no one runs for a $16,116-a-year legislative seat to get rich. Again, it shouldn’t be surprising that they have been reluctant to close the door on more lucrative work.

Which brings us to Boise Democratic Rep. Brian Cronin. A rising star in the state’s minority party and a 41-year-old father of two, Cronin is leaving the Legislature this year, due to financial concerns.

Cronin says he will not apply his four years of legislative experience into lobbying his former colleagues. Cronin’s new employer — Strategies 360, a Seattle-based communications firm — corroborates his account.

Of course, that decision is strictly between Cronin and Strategies 360. The state has no say in the matter, because it has no rules to prohibit Cronin from lobbying.

Legislative Democrats have tended to be the most vocal critics of the rules — and again, that’s no surprise. In a Republican state, Republicans get more opportunities to ride the “revolving door” to a future in lobbying.

But the revolving door is not discriminating: It allows a Republican, or a Democrat, to go from lawmaker to lobbyist in the time it takes to clean out one desk and move into another. The only thing preventing anyone from taking this step is a desire to do the right thing — or, perhaps, just a self-interested concern about appearances.

Appearances do matter. But are Idahoans fed up enough to take matters into their own hands?

They have before. The state only has a campaign contribution disclosure law because Idaho voters approved an initiative in 1974. As legislators dance around the edges of ethics reform, they gradually advance the argument for an ethics initiative.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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