Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Necessary But Insufficient

Editorial reaction to last week's announcement of a bipartisan agreement on ethics reform has ranged from "it's about time" to "good first step" to "OK fine, but don't you dare think you're done."

Our sentiments exactly.

Ethics enforcement reform is long, long overdue. And it is sorely needed. But even if the governor and legislative leaders make good on their promise to act in early January to cement in place ethics reforms as strong or stronger than those spelled out in their agreement in principle, it won't be enough to restore Wisconsin's good name. Not nearly enough.

Without lobbying reform and campaign finance reform that put an end to vending machine electioneering and lawmaking, the Capitol will remain an ethical swamp.

Ethics enforcement reform and these other essential reforms go hand in hand. Wisconsin could enact the finest campaign and lobbying reforms in the land, but they won't be worth the paper they're written on if they are not faithfully implemented and rigorously enforced. Wisconsin's existing enforcement agencies haven't effectively administered or aggressively enforced our old laws. There is nothing in their track records to inspire confidence that they would do any better with new laws. Yet even a politically independent new enforcement authority with real teeth could only do so much if left to administer and enforce campaign finance and lobbying laws that have been shot full of holes.

The promised January special session on ethics reform will be a good warm-up act, but the main event will be the fight for campaign finance reform and lobbying reform. Predictably, the big business lobby described in the criminal complaint against Scott Jensen as one of the "four horsemen" – a reference to the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who signal the end of the world – is making it clear it likes things exactly the way they are. In a lengthy article in Monday's Wisconsin State Journal, one of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce's talking heads is quoted repeating for the gazillionth time his group's defense of legalized extortion and bribery. What WMC's argument boils down to is this: Money is speech. Secrecy is freedom.

Ethics enforcement reform alone won't drain the ethical swamp because the biggest problems don't have anything to do with activities that are against the law. The real scandal in Wisconsin politics is what's perfectly legal.

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