The General Assembly is preparing to add a little ethics to the Code of Virginia without first campaigning much on the specific changes or engaging voters in serious discussions of ethics rules.
After months of campaigns featuring attack ads across the state, lawmakers plan to debate in January how to inject ethical prescriptions into law.
A poll released Oct. 16 by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy shows strong support among likely voters for a ban on gifts of $100 or more from a single person to an elected official or member of their family and for creation of a state ethics commission. By a margin of 76 percent to 17 percent, voters support a $100 gift cap, and by 64 percent to 26 percent voters favor an ethics commission.
General Assembly members know they are expected to satisfy a public demand for ethics reform, but the task of adopting strong ethics laws has been resisted in the past. The legislature generally spends a lot of time on laws and not so much on ethics. Next year may be different.
A dictionary definition of ethics differs from a definition of law.
Ethics is defined in Merriam-Webster as “an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior: a branch of philosophy dealing with what is right or wrong.”
Ethics implies a choice or choices, while law is more of a hard floor for behavior below which it is unlawful. Merriam-Webster calls law “the whole system or set of rules made by the government of a town, state, country, etc.”
The legislature might move to elevate the floor a little as it considers sets of bills to limit gifts to officials and members of their families, to establish tighter reporting and perhaps even an ethics commission more powerful than an advisory afterthought.
House of Delegates candidates on both sides of the aisle have raised ethics reform as an issue for the 2014 session of the General Assembly, but these issues are not driving campaigns.
Bills are being introduced to limit the size of gifts to $50 or $100 and increase reporting requirements in a state that has among the nation’s most lax rules governing gifts to elected officials and their families. Current Virginia law places no limit on the value of reportable gifts that elected officials can receive. Disclosure of gifts to family members is left up to officials and often avoided.
Proposals to establish an independent ethics commission that is more than just an advisory body of former legislators also are being discussed as possible ethics reforms.
What remains unclear is whether ethics reform can be a set of issues that drives voters to the polls on Nov. 5 and whether the proposals provide a significant advantage to one political party’s candidates or a significant change to the state's political culture.
“Hopefully we can find some things both parties can agree on,” House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said. “The proof is in the specific requirements of disclosure.”
Toscano, a member of the House of Delegates since 2006, said legislators might find a $50 gift limit too restrictive. He said a $100 limit on gifts might be more realistic. “It’s hard to totally regulate ethical behavior. A lot of it is personal responsibility,” he said.
“I think there is absolutely no doubt that the public would like to see us change the way we do business in Richmond,” Toscano said. “I think there will be an effort, at least on the Democratic side, for an ethics commission. There is going to be a lot of discussion about how they work in other states.”
Del. Edward T. Scott, R-Madison, said the public would like to see more transparency. “There is voter interest in it,” said Scott, a member of the House since 2004.
“We have operated for a number of years on the principle we are transparent,” he said. “We have lost some confidence from the public that we are transparent.”
There will be discussion about gifts made to immediate family members of officials, Scott said.
If there are maximum gift limits under discussion, would that rule out expenses-paid trips to conferences? Scott asked. “Then you start getting into what is a gift.”
A lobbying group’s annual conference at a nice hotel could run $1,500. Such conferences can be of value to a legislator, he added.
“If you are having a burger and a beer with a lobbyist instead of a Morton’s steak, fine,” Scott said. “I always reported it if Tech or UVa invited me to a football game,” he said.
That might not pass a $50 gift limit test.
Will ethics drive voters to the polls?
“Outside of the governor’s race, I don’t think so,” Scott said. “My sense is a number of my colleagues are giving this some thought. I think it will definitely be a focus.”
“I don’t think it’s going to drive voters to the polls,” but the public would like to see action on ethics, said Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford County.
Howell, a member of the House since 1988, agreed it can be hard to define what is a gift and said he personally does not favor limits on gifts. One emphasis may be on better reporting and more transparency.
“I think it is going to be a big issue” in the 2014 session, he said. “We have had a task force looking at it for a month or so. … I think we are going to come up with some good and successful solutions.”
Bob Gibson is executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the institute.