Senate Ethics Rule Removes Role of Senators Critical of Business As Usual
By David Ferguson
On Thursday, Senate leaders unveiled a proposed rule on Senate ethics. The proposal came as criticism of corruption by Senators is mounting. The proposal appears to include some improvements that I hope to discuss later, after I have time for a more detailed review of the proposal. For now, we need to talk about the proposal’s power grab that will remove the ethics role of the few senators who have dared to criticize business as usual.
The proposal creates a Committee on Senate Ethics made up of five members appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Sounds like a step forward. Right? NO, it is a significant step backwards.
The proposed rule takes away authority from the Senate Rules Committee and gives the authority to the proposed Committee on Senate Ethics. Why is this significant? Because the proposed Committee on Senate Ethics is a much easier body to control – fewer members and all selected by one person.
I am surprised Senate leaders are using the exact same ploy they have used in creating task forces – take away authority from an existing committee, control who gets to be members, and thereby control the outcome.
Let’s compare the makeup of the committees
|Rules Committee||15||Assignment chosen by Senators by seniority[i]|
|Proposed Committee on Ethics||5||All chosen by President Pro Tempore|
With the Rules Committee you get a cross section of the Senate. With the proposed Committee on Senate Ethics you get only allies of one Senator, the Pro Tempore.
The Rules Committee currently has authority to provide advisory opinions to Senators. Instead of expanding the authority of the Rules Committee, the proposal takes away its authority and creates a committee of the Pro Tempore’s chosen ones.
By creating a new committee instead of using the Rules Committee, Senate leaders are avoiding having to give a larger ethics role to Senators who have dared speak out against corruption and business as usual. The Rules Committee membership includes Senator Bryan King and Senator Terry Rice. Senator King had the audacity to propose a bill to require Medicaid providers to disclose business relationships with legislators. Senator Terry Rice dared to call for the resignation of Senator Jeremy Hutchinson. Senate leaders may also be concerned about other voices of reason on the Rules Committee such as Senators Caldwell, Hickey, and Stubblefield.
The Rules Committee is a mixed bag of reformers and those who protect the status quo – but that is why it is a good committee to conduct investigations. Here is the full membership (there are currently only 14 members listed on the committee): Bruce Maloch; Trent Garner; Cecile Bledsoe; Ronald Caldwell; Eddie Cheatham; John Cooper; Scott Flippo; Jim Hendren; Jimmy Hickey, Jr; Blake Johnson; Bryan King; Terry Rice; Gary Stubblefield; and Larry Teague
Leaders have no good reason to create a new committee. No offence to the Rules Committee, but it is not a busy committee when compared to other committees. Giving it additional ethics duties would not be a burden. There would likely be relatively few ethics complaints to make it to the hearing state. With no need to create a new committee, this looks like either window dressing to make it look like more is being done or worse an attempt to control the results in case someone in leadership has an ethics problem.
The proposal makes it harder for the full Senate to hold its own hearings on violations of the Senate Code of Ethics. Currently, a majority of the Senate can require hearings on a Senator’s alleged violation of the Senate Code of Ethics. The proposal shifts this authority to the President Pro Tempore’s hand-picked Committee on Senate Ethics. The Senate would then have the role of reviewing the committee’s report and voting for or against a finding of a violation. If a majority of the Senate decided there was a problem with the report of the five-member committee and wanted to hold its own hearings, the Senate would have to vote to suspend its rules by a 2/3rds vote which is 24 votes instead of acting on a majority vote of 18. Whatever changes are made in the rules, a majority of the Senate should always be allowed to act, whether it is to ratify a committee action or to hold its own hearings.
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I had heard good things would come out of the ethics proposal, so the move by Senate leadership to stack the deck is extremely disappointing. I hope the full Senate will fix this mess, and I hope I will see some better provisions as I read the rest of the proposal.
If you would like to read about current ethics law and rules and the loopholes built into them you might like to read Sham Ethics Rules for AR Legislature & Lots of Loopholes.
David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature. After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.
[i] Senate Rule 7.04 (a) The Rules Committee shall consist of fifteen (15) members, and all proposed action touching the Senate Rules, Joint Rules, and order of business shall be referred to the Committee on Rules.
Senate Rule 7.01 (b)(6) The next senior member shall then choose a position on one (1) Joint Committee or one (1) Select Committee. The seniority rotation procedure shall continue, without regard to party affiliation, until the member with the least seniority makes his or her selections. Only a member of the majority party may serve as the Chairman of the Joint Performance Review Committee.