Editorial: GOP must get behind strong ethics rules

The Detroit News

There’s nothing an influence peddler likes better than the outstretched palm of a lawmaker. Some leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature seem hell-bent on keeping the grease flowing to those hands.

A very sensible package of bills that would tighten Michigan’s weakest-in-the-nation ethics laws are stalled in Lansing because some key GOP lawmakers won’t come on board.

In March, House Democrats introduced a package of bills requiring legislators to disclose their personal finance information. The proposals won the conditional support of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and House Speaker Tom Leonard, both Republicans.

But they’ve gone nowhere because other Republicans aren’t so eager to allow constituents to search their financial records for potential conflicts.

The House did pass an ethics-related bill in March on a bipartisan vote that would lift the Freedom of Information Act shield on the governor and lawmakers.

That bill is stalled in the Senate, blocked by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.

Lansing’s wild west ethical landscape must be tamed. Lawmakers are relatively free to take all sorts of sweeteners from lobbyists, including meals, event tickets and even some trips.

They also don’t have to disclose financial entanglements that may affect how they vote on certain legislation.

Reforms proposed by Democrats are not that onerous.

Among other things, they would ban public officials and their family members from accepting gifts, loans, money, services or pretty much anything else of value from those seeking to influence their decisions. That seems a straightforward safeguard against conflict.

If lawmakers want to dine out or see a ball game, they should foot their own bills, like everyone else.

Lawmakers would also be forbidden to engage in business transactions resulting from confidential information gained in the course of their duties. Again, this measure assures basic ethical behavior.

There are other elements of the bills, the purpose of which are to impose some boundaries on how cozy lawmakers can get with the people trying to sway them.

At a time when there is so little trust in America’s public institutions, lawmakers should be eager to bolster the confidence in their integrity by imposing on themselves strict rules of conduct.

That they aren’t should trouble voters.

The FOIA exemption lawmakers are so religiously preserving keeps from the public information that it rightly owns.

It also creates the impression that lawmakers and the governor are above a law that applies to nearly every other government official.

Concerns about exposing sensitive constituent information can be dealt with. But as for claims that having to do their business in the open will hamper their effectiveness and ability to get deals done, well, wouldn’t everyone like that arrangement?

There’s no defense of the soft-line toward ethics taken by Michigan lawmakers. Too many scandals have rocked the Legislature in recent years for them to even pretend that strong ethical rules are not a necessity.