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Scott MacKay Commentary: Don't Expect RI Ethics Rules Will Change Anything on Smith Hill

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Once again, Rhode Island lawmakers are ensnared in a joust over extending ethics oversight of the General Assembly. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay...

Once again, Rhode Island lawmakers are ensnared in a joust over extending ethics oversight of the General Assembly. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the measure isn’t likely to usher in change on Smith Hill.

As predictable as lobbyists prowling the marble halls, the annual debate over whether Rhode Island lawmakers should be subject to state ethics rules is simmering on Smith Hill. This has happened every year since the state Supreme Court carved out an exception for reps and senators in  2009.

The lines are drawn: good-government groups on one side and influential lawmakers on the other. You would think that with all the lawyers under the marble dome, that a compromise could be forged. Yet, so far that hasn’t happened.

Lawmakers fear being dragged before the state Ethics Commission on frivolous claims or for things they say during floor debates. This may have theoretical validity, but in practice it doesn’t make much sense. If every mayor and town and city member is subject to ethics oversight, why aren’t lawmakers? What makes them so special?

The good government advocates, particularly Common Cause of Rhode Island, point to the need to curb Statehouse corruption in their arguments for reinstating ethics supervision of the General Assembly. It sounds like a stellar argument, but it probably won’t be any more effective than spitting into a gale force wind.

In Rhode Island, rules imposed on lawmakers don’t seem to stem wrongdoing. Before the high court tossed them out, these rules didn’t seem to stop corruption or such dubious practices as the nightly political fund-raisers during the session. Ditto for the end-of-session flurry of hundreds of bills voted on by legislators who haven’t read the amendments.

Good-government groups always promise that big improvements are in the offing   if only we change the way business is done on Smith Hill. Yet history shows that many of these measures don’t mean much. A prime example:  The much ballyhooed 2004 Separation of Powers Constitutional Amendment that barred lawmakers from sitting on state boards and commissions and trimmed some legislative prerogatives.

With a former House Speaker, Gordon Fox, serving federal prison time for bribery, and many other state and local officials jammed up, can anyone say with a straight face that the Separation of Powers amendment curbed corruption, stopped the 38 Studios farce or helped bring more jobs to the state?

As far as Smith Hill chicanery goes, was there really less of it when lawmakers were under the ethics laws?

What no ethics rule can accomplish is removing the power of the purse from the Assembly. That means lawmakers control the budgets of every state agency.   Which is a good thing, because lawmakers are accountable to voters every two years.

So if you don’t like, say, the truck toll, you have a remedy – organize and work for candidates who will oust those who voted pro-toll.

House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston has taken heat for the tolls. He’s been called a dictator by the Republican state chairman, which is no surprise; Republicans appear to be groping for an issue to challenge Democratic lawmakers  in this fall’s elections. And John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, took to the Providence Journal’s op-ed page last week to complain that Rhode Island House speakers have too much power.

Here’s a different view. Mattiello successfully took a flawed truck toll proposal from Gov. Gina Raimondo and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport and made it better. The compromise shaped by the speaker planed the rough edges from the measure and lowered the tolls, making it less onerous for the trucking industry.

Mattiello has been slammed for purging three Democrats who voted against the toll plan from high-profile committees. But a speaker needs allies to run the Statehouse. The Assembly isn’t a debating society or a good government confab. It is politics 101, which boils down to who gets what and how.

In the end, all the fancy-sounding rules and regulations on lawmakers don’t amount to much if voters keep sending the same old, same old back to Smith Hill. History shows that the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office are far better at ridding our politics of crooks than ethics edicts.

Republicans need to nominate better candidates; Democrats will never fear a party that can’t even recruit enough candidates to loosen their grip. Yes, voters need to be less apathetic, but they deserve choices.

Politics is the art of the possible, not the practice of doing nothing. You think Rhode Island lawmakers are bad. Well, they aren’t as dysfunctional as the U.S. Congress.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Rhode Island Statehouse
Rhode Island Statehouse