Ethically Challenged: Craddick and Company Take The High Road to The Low Ground
Late Sunday night -- actually early Monday morning on June 2, after the House suspended its rule requiring new business to be completed by midnight -- Houston Democrat Ron Wilson, flanked by Republicans Mary Denny (Aubrey), Terry Keel (Austin), and Jerry Madden (Richardson), took the front mic to recount the recent history of the bill under consideration, HB 1606. This was the omnibus ethics bill carried by Dallas Democrat Steve Wolens that, shedding substantive provisions at every step, had staggered its way through the House over several weeks, slogged through the Senate and conference committee, nearly expired from the bloodletting, and then -- suddenly and mysteriously rejuvenated -- had arrived once again on the House floor for final passage.
Wolens had already laid out the major changes in the bill when Wilson took the mic to speak in support of a bill he had heretofore doggedly opposed. But rather than speak of the bill's substance, Wilson launched into a recitation of slights and insults among supporters and opponents during the preceding 48 hours. He was at the point of demanding a personal apology from an unnamed adversary (see below), when Wolens jumped to the back mic and objected. Wolens told Speaker Craddick that if Mr. Wilson wanted to speak on the merits of the bill, that was fine, "but if he wants to rehearse dueling press conferences from the last two days, I'm ready to debate those with him right now."
With an audible sneer, Wilson responded, "I'm ready to debate Mr. Wolens anytime, anywhere, any place" -- with the boorish implication that if Wolens wanted to take the matter outside, that was cool with Wilson. Craddick intervened, telling Wilson to "confine his remarks to the bill." Replied Wilson, "I'm ready to do so, as soon as he stops whining back there." But the storm had passed. Wilson moved passage, and he and his allies yielded the floor.
What was the fuss all about?
In brief, Craddick had appointed Wilson, Denny, Madden, and Keel (along with Wolens) to the conference committee on HB 1606, although only Denny had been a member of the Select Committee on Ethics of which Wolens was chair. On Saturday afternoon -- without notifying Wolens -- Wilson et al. had met with Craddick, and then that evening held a press conference to announce that "on principle" they could no longer support the bill. Reading a statement prepared by Craddick's press flack, Denny called on Gov. Perry to call a special session for ethics legislation. "We feel that the glare of the limelight," they proclaimed, "will encourage members of both the House and Senate to get serious about tougher ethics rules."
This sudden eruption of legislative virtue was more than Wolens could swallow, especially from members ("hypocritical" and "disingenuous" were only two of the Wolensian epithets) who had earlier voted against the very provisions they now claimed an ethics bill must contain. That was an hour later, when Wolens and Rodney Ellis (the bill's Senate sponsor) held their own press conference, at which an angry Wolens recounted the sorry history of the bill: that he agreed to carry it only at Craddick's insistence, that Craddick then allowed House members privately to gut the original draft, reasonably tough, before it ever reached the floor, and that both Senate and House conference committee members (excepting Wilson) had agreed to the current version until, they confessed to Wolens, Craddick ordered them not to sign. Wolens invited Wilson (in attendance) to respond -- but when Wilson began denouncing the entire bill, Wolens pointed out that prior to that moment, the only objection Wilson had was that lawyer/legislators should be required to disclose referral fees.
Matters quickly got nastier when normally mild-mannered Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, also working long weeks on the bill, jumped up and demanded that Wilson "cut the bullshit" and Wilson responded in kind. (It was this exchange with Smith that Wilson was apparently referring to on Monday when he demanded an apology -- although why a man so reflexively abusive to others as Wilson should be so thin-skinned himself is a question for an entirely different select committee. He appears to be engaged in a permanent Tough Man competition in which he is the only contestant.)
Wolens and Ellis speculated that the only possible motive for sabotaging the bill at the last minute was to provide an excuse for Gov. Perry to call a special session -- at which time the vexed and partisan question of congressional redistricting would magically reappear.
Since no other explanation was forthcoming, Sunday's papers came to the same conclusion -- that Tom DeLay and his local allies were looking for any pretext to take up redistricting -- although the notion of an emergency session on legislative ethics is laughable on its face. Any media slack the GOP anticipated for ethical punctiliousness did not materialize. And in the meantime, the Senate (via Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) informed Craddick that if he truly wanted the immediate college tuition deregulation he had so recently begun demanding, he had better not blow up the ethics bill and try to blame it on the Senate. (Ellis told reporters he left the Saturday night press conference ready to filibuster tuition de-reg if the House continued to grandstand on ethics.)
Cut the Bullshit
That brought HB 1606 (essentially out of public embarrassment) to its final apotheosis: a much stronger bill that actually forbids legislators to lobby state agencies for pay, requires greater disclosure of both finances and delaying tactics like legislative continuances, and marginally strengthens the Ethics Commission. Craddick and Perry will have to find another pretext for redistricting -- and rest assured, ethics or no ethics, they will do so. Craddick has already suggested a likely candidate in HB 2 (alias HB 1952), the "Death Star" government reorganization bill that finally collapsed of its own weight.
Was the game, then, worth the candle? Frankly, I cannot share the liberal obsession with campaign finance reform and ethics legislation as the magic wands of popular democracy. Especially in Texas, where the utterly transparent, phony notion of "citizen-legislators" means that our elected officials literally cannot earn a living without indenturing themselves to some special interest other than their own constituents.
Much more importantly, all the ethics bills in Christendom are not worth the 78th Legislature's last-minute, offhand sacrifice of the very notion of equitable public higher education in Texas. This act of gratuitous vandalism was accomplished abruptly by Perry, Craddick, Dewhurst, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, et al. almost with the back of their hands. When they attempt, later this year or early next, to do much the same to the public schools, it will be precious little comfort to know who hired them for the job.