The Politics of Ethics Reform

Albany tries to get it right, but doesn't try too hard

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    Is it any wonder that 58% of New Yorkers believe that they have one of the worst stae goverments in the nation?

    In a town where governors, majority leaders and rank-and-file legislators have been charged with various forms of corruption, it seems strange to see the lawmakers wrestling with how to bring ethics to Albany.

    Ethics is simply the issue of what is right and what is wrong. Great philosophers, statesmen and thinkers have considered that question throughout history.

    Now, the State Senate has approved a package of bills designed to combat political corruption and require elected officials to disclose more about their outside financial interests. Fifty-nine senators voted for the bill but they were, as the Times reports, "unenthusiastic." And the other house, the Assembly, was equally lukewarm in enacting its ethics bill.

    Governor Paterson says the bills don’t go far enough and threatens to veto them. The Legislature has enough votes to override a veto.

    There’s one glaring weakness in the legislation just passed. Paterson had asked for an independent commission to scrutinize the behavior of legislators for possibly unethical behavior. The measure they voted for allows each body to police itself, with an oversight body that each appoints -- that’s hardly a guarantee of proper conduct.

    For decades, cynics have expressed doubt about being able to legislate ethical behavior. Thus, essayist H.L. Mencken said: ‘If experience teaches us anything at all, it teaches us that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar."

    But these bills do have some good points. Greater disclosure of outside financial interests is required, and that’s good. The bill’s main Senate sponsor, Sen. Eric Schneiderman, says: "The message to all the well-connected lobbyists and legislators who have benefited from Albany’s pay-to-play culture is clear: the party is over."

    Maybe. At least it’s one step in the right direction.