Thursday, May 4, 2006 07:11 am
Needed: a threat that works
Legislative reforms treat the symptoms, not the disease
Whenever there’s a big story, a calamity of some sort, an outrage, or some type of disaster, you can bet that a lobbyist or special-interest group will try to take advantage of the situation to push some kind of legislation in Springfield. That’s pretty much what’s happening in the wake of the George Ryan conviction. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is calling for changes in the way Illinois politics is conducted. Comptroller Dan Hynes is also touring the state, touting his own package of ethics reforms, which is backed by ICPR and a handful of legislators. Some editorial boards have spoken out in favor of the reforms. Even so, nothing proposed so far would have stopped George Ryan’s corruption. Indeed, no legislation, no law, no penalty would have prevented that from happening. It would be like outlawing rain before Hurricane Katrina. Ryan and his minions would have found a way around anything that was thrown at them. And remember: It was Ryan who introduced the first comprehensive lobbyist-registration reforms in years, back when he was secretary of state. For a while, he touted himself as a reformer and received high praise for his work. Ryan’s former chief of staff and convicted felon Scott Fawell once told me that Illinois voters have a much higher tolerance for corruption than the voters just about any other state. Getting things done, he said, was infinitely more important to this state’s voters than how the sausage was made. And even though Ryan eventually proved Fawell wrong, Ryan may have been the exception that proves the rule. About 70 percent of Democratic primary voters went with Gov. Rod Blagojevich last month, as did several newspaper editorial boards, even though at least six different federal, state, and local investigations of his administration are being conducted and he has been labeled “Public Official A” in a federal corruption plea. Still, Blagojevich was able to skate through the primary almost without ever having to answer any tough questions about alleged wrongdoing in his administration. Some of the proposals from ICPR and Hynes are good. A ban on state contractors’ contributing campaign money to the people who approve their contracts is probably long overdue. Opening up the inspector general offices to public scrutiny is also a common sense reform that needs to be made as soon as possible. Blagojevich’s office has cynically said the governor will only support a supercomprehensive reform package, which the governor undoubtedly knows has little or no chance of passage. Legislative leaders don’t seem too anxious to do anything, either, and most rank-and-file members have barely murmured a peep. So nothing of substance may be done in the waning days of the overtime session. The only “reform” bill that appears to be moving right now is legislation that would force legislative-caucus political committees to identify themselves in any communications that mention a candidate or a “public policy position.” This is a House Democratic bill essentially designed to put the House Republicans on the defensive for an ill-advised “robocall” scheme that targeted some Democrats a few weeks ago on the pension issue. It’s mainly just a press pop. If ICPR and Hynes can use the current Ryan situation to their advantage and get something done by the end of the spring session, more power to them. But even if a major reform package passes, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: Any reforms will merely treat the symptoms, not the disease. Until voters and media leaders begin to hold accountable all officials who exude the rank smell of corruption, then nothing will ever change in this state. Former Gov. Jim Edgar constantly quoted the late, great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ statement about “sunshine being the greatest disinfectant” whenever the corruption issue emerged. He was flat wrong. Opening up the books only works if participants can be shamed by what is publicized, and Ryan clearly demonstrated that there is precious little shame in this system. If ICPR, Hynes, the editorial boards, and the columnists truly want to change the way business is done, they need to start playing hardball. The fear of political death is the only disinfectant that ever really works.