In Hawaii, fighting corruption and striving to be above reproach in elected office are a lot like New Year’s resolutions.
Through dereliction of duty, looking the other way, or just plain not caring, we constantly let problems get so big they can’t be ignored, and then we decide to launch into a furious kick that will reinforce the ethics and fight corruption that will last at least until the critical media coverage stops.
The best example of this is the legislature’s recent attempts to reform campaign finance. Still reeling from the shockwaves of the corruption scandal involving former Senator Kalani English and Rep. Ty Cullen, one of the bills making rapid progress in the tall square building is Senate Bill 555, relating to campaign fundraising, which would make it illegal to hold fundraisers while the Legislative Assembly is in session.
Superficially speaking, this seems like a great idea and something we should have done years ago. After all, even the State Campaign Expenditures Committee in its March 29 testimony praised the idea, adding, “This amendment will prevent bribery or the appearance of bribery.
Of course, having worked in the Legislative Assembly for years, I am a bit too cynical to think that banning fundraisers will suddenly prevent malevolent dark forces and black money from manipulating the minds and votes of elected officials. .
For one thing, a “fundraiser” is currently defined by law as any activity intended to “raise contributions for which the price or suggested contribution to attend the function is more than $25 per person.” Our incumbents did not come to power ignorant of semantics.
When I worked for the legislators from 2005 to 2010, I can tell you that I never once attended a “fundraiser” during a session. I have, however, attended countless “birthday parties” for legislators in which the suggested ticket for attendance was $25 or less, and conveniently the number of attendees – many of which were organized and brought in by groups of special interests – was more than enough to compensate for the low ticket price. It’s shocking, I tell you, how many legislators have birthdates in the months during the session!
This is why several SB 555 witnesses suggested that the bill be revised to prohibit the receipt of all contributions entirely during the session, because even in the absence of a fundraiser, one can still deposit a donation. important to a legislator.
But who are we kidding? It is preposterous to think that the people and organizations who intimately control Honolulu will articulate their plans and plots behind in-session chili and rice fundraisers, or on a paltry donation before a key committee or vote in the floor. This kind of “fundraising” is the way amateurs lavish special attention on elected officials with symbolic authority.
Political donation whales invest early in their candidates and incumbents well before the session begins, because agenda setting doesn’t start mid-session, it begins before candidates are elected and Legislators are responsible for introducing or hearing bills.
If you’ve ever seen the 1994 sports film “Blue Chips” which shows a fictional university finding creative ways to recruit basketball talent by bribing athletes with gifts and cash, you might be shocked. learn that the actual political sponsorship of our elected officials is far more elaborate than Hollywood could ever dream of.
I have a lot of friends who instinctively say, “do all the publicly funded elections” as an answer to that. I like to gently pat them on the head and give them a macadamia nut chocolate chip cookie. If only politics and life were that simple. The truth is, you’re never going to ban your way to an ethical legislature. There are deeper structural and moral issues that prevent us from fighting corruption or undue influence in Hawaii.
For one, the House of Representatives is a full-time fundraising job due to the fact that it’s a two-year office. As soon as a representative is elected, their campaign for re-election begins. Whether you’re a freshman or a member of House management, you’ll never get a rep to stop thinking about what they can do to get more money. Why do bees look for flowers? Because that’s what bees do, and our reps are busy bees when it comes to fundraising.
Second, stop with the mandatory training seminars, ethics brochures, and token restrictions. These are not meant to stop corruption, they are simply meant to offload the responsibility to fight corruption, as they give the impression that rules are in place. If you need a law or an ethics PowerPoint presentation to say don’t check before a key committee vote, you already don’t have the judgment to resist the purchase.
With few exceptions, we have two types of people in the Hawaii office: well-meaning incompetents who are easily impressed, and ill-meaning bullies who are hard to defeat. Both groups are all eager for higher positions. The odds are against us if we try to stop lawmakers with laws alone.
Yes, you all hate it when I say this, but to get a more ethical elected government, we need a more ethically conscious voting population. Don’t even start with “but we had terrible choices on the ballot either”. No, the Democratic and Republican parties recruit and filter through the primary election the kinds of choices that reflect the desires of the people who really matter – the people who actually vote.
As I’ve said many times before, if you want better legislators, be a better voter.