Weekly Briefing

Good bureaucracy

Proposed ethics laws may be a hassle for some, but they're absolutely essential

Quick take: State lawmakers are debating a list of new ethics bills that would promote greater accountability and more sunshine in state government. While some insiders view the proposals warily as imposing new and burdensome bureaucracy, the truth in many instances involving modern government is that additional bureaucracy can be a very good thing -especially if it promotes honesty and public confidence.

It's one of the great ironies of modern government that some of the loudest critics of public bureaucracy are often among its chief architects. And we're not just talking about the military-industrial complex or the highway system; we're talking about the bread and butter bureaucracies in health, human services and education.

How's that, you say? How could the conservative, anti-government right have anything to do with the dramatic expansion of several of our largest public bureaucracies?

Well, think about it for a minute: What is the chief function of our public bureaucracies? The answer, of course, is that, for many, it is to mete out public resources and to make sure that no one receives anything to which they are not entitled. Especially in the last few decades as conservatives have raised heck about supposed abuses of every public program from "welfare" to Medicaid to Food Stamps to school lunches, large new bureaucracies have arisen to carefully assess and re-assess every application for assistance and monitor every program beneficiary to make sure that no one receives a penny more than the law allows.

Is this a bad thing? Well, yes and no. Yes, it is bad when deserving people are denied essential services or benefits because they didn't dot an "i" or cross a "t" to the satisfaction of an officious bureaucrat. It can also be bad when we spend more on bureaucracy than we would save if a handful of poor people got a free doctor's visit or school lunch for which they were technically ineligible.

On the other hand, no, it's not bad if such laws are enforced evenhandedly and help build and sustain public faith in government. To see what life would be like without functioning, rule-obsessed bureaucracies, check out life in any of the scores of generally corrupt nations of the less-developed world. In so doing, one sees that bureaucracy is often a very good thing.

The ethics bureaucracy

Talk of bureaucracy is particularly apt right now as the North Carolina General Assembly debates a new round of ethics proposals. Ever since the demise of former House Speaker Jim Black, the topic of ethics reform has remained close to the front burner in North Carolina policy circles. At the General Assembly, an unlikely coalition of progressives and conservatives has worked together to advance legislation that has strengthened the state ethics bureaucracy in order to clamp down on a number of abuses – some egregious and some less so. In other instances, progressives have pushed forward on their own with proposals to expand public financing of elections. Recent revelations about former Governor Easley have only added fuel to the fire.

A key challenge when it comes to strengthening the ethics bureaucracy, however, is that many of the people most directly impacted by it are the elected officials themselves. Some are resistant because they genuinely have something to fear and rightfully worry about new laws cramping their style, their power and maybe even their future employment prospects.

Others, however, drag their feet not because they're dishonest or slick operators. They resist because they themselves are basically honest and simply don't want to mess with it. Why create a new bureaucratic hassle for one's self – one that guarantees more forms, more paperwork, and fewer free lunches? Such an attitude is only strengthened when one spends so many of one's working days immersed in the world of the General Assembly. Why make things tougher on one's friends and co-workers?

Overcoming the inertia

Fortunately, for most elected officials, the ultimate political motivator is not inconvenience or the service of personal relationships, but self-preservation and a commitment to governing. Given this fact, there is every reason to believe that legislators will act before they go home this summer to pass some version of a package of ethics improvements promoted by the reformers at the Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

At a minimum, such a package ought to include new laws on the following topics:

  • Banning "pay to play" campaign contributions by state contractors to elected officials who award contracts. The ban would start from the time the request for bids is announced and last until the contract is completed. 

  • Closing the so-called "revolving door" by requiring a year-long cooling off period before top executive branch officials can become lobbyists and before state employees can take a job in industries they contract with or regulate.

  • Extending the current gift ban ordered in October by Governor Perdue for employees in her office and in cabinet agencies to all state employees and appointees to state boards and commissions.

  • Prohibiting political parties from providing unlimited campaign funds to legislative and statewide campaigns and limiting the transfer of money from one political committee to another.

  • Requiring appointees to state boards and commissions to report any campaign contributions they make to appointing elected officials.

  • Requiring all elected officials to file a statement of economic interest that covers their final year in elective office.

Finally, any such package that's truly serious about making the ethics bureaucracy effective should also include a set of reforms advanced by the ethics experts at the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina that promotes and expands public financing of elections. This means:

  • Expanding the current program that covers the races for Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Commissioner of Insurance to include the other five agency heads on the Council of State (Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General, Commissioners of Agriculture and Labor).

  • Initiating a pilot program for state House and Senate races that allows candidates who adhere to strict fundraising limits to qualify for public financing of campaigns.

  • Authorizing more cities and counties to sponsor their own public financing programs, using their own funding. Chapel Hill has this authority and will offer public financing in its 2009 election.

All of these proposals would almost certainly expand North Carolina's ethics bureaucracy, but as is often the case when it comes to assuring the public's confidence in a fair, honest and unbiased government, sometimes bureaucracy can be a good thing. Let's hope that this truth is one on which progressives and conservatives can continue to find and build common ground.

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