IT’S TEMPTING to yawn at the ritual of a governor naming a commission and just as easy to imagine the commission’s recommendations ignored in perpetuity, hogging space on a sagging shelf. That would be a terrible outcome for the commission on ethics reform in Virginia, announced Thursday by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), and for the state.
Having been subjected to the tawdry drama of greed, corruption and dissembling by former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, who now await sentencing by a federal judge, Virginians deserve better than to have their lawmakers shrug off serious attempts to tighten the state’s anemic ethics laws.
That’s what the General Assembly did last winter by producing a handful of watered-down reforms, stripped of meaningful changes to the rules governing gifts and disclosure, which are among the weakest in the nation. In hopes of making a dent in the face of legislative indifference, Mr. McAuliffe charged a bipartisan commission with formulating wide-ranging proposals to improve the commonwealth’s laws.
The governor sensibly framed the importance of the panel’s task in economic terms. With its reputation for clean and transparent governance battered by the McDonnell affair, Virginia is handicapped in competition with other states to attract new businesses and jobs. To compete effectively, the state needs to clean up its act, the governor said.
That argument was intended to remove the issue of ethics reform from the arena of partisan combat. Nonetheless, Republicans did their best to drag it back there, immediately issuing a statement attacking Mr. McAuliffe’s ethics record and, by implication, mocking the commission.
In fact, the governor is right: Thanks to the McDonnell affair, Virginia has become a national laughingstock. That’s a bipartisan problem, and it demands a bipartisan solution.
The commission’s most urgent agenda will be to formulate rules governing gifts to those who hold public office, and disclosure of those gifts, in time for the legislative session that starts in January. Last winter, lawmakers put a $250 annual cap on the value of “tangible” gifts that could be accepted by officials but left untouched the question of intangible gifts — including trips, meals and vacations — on which there is no limit in Virginia.
Other loopholes governing gifts remain, including the lack of rules governing the size of gifts from “friends,” a category of acquaintance that tends to be very elastic in politics.
Beyond that immediate agenda, Mr. McAuliffe charged the commission with examining state governance more broadly. He urged it to study and propose reforms in campaign finance laws; in the highly partisan system for redistricting; and in the rule — the only one of its kind in the country — that bars Virginia governors from seeking reelection after a single term. (Any change in that rule would not apply to Mr. McAuliffe.)
Shifting the legislature on those issues will be a heavy lift; the status quo is deeply ingrained and, in many cases, is instrumental in helping incumbents maintain their grip on power.
However, Mr. McAuliffe helped his cause by naming respected former officials as co-chairmen of the commission — former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, a Republican who presided over the state Senate for eight years and served in it before that, and former representative Rick Boucher, a Democrat who served almost 30 years in Congress. The other members of the panel are also distinguished.
Lawmakers should exercise caution if they think the public will soon forget the McDonnell trial and the Swiss-cheese laws that enabled the scandal in the first place. Sentencing for the McDonnells is set for Jan. 6, eight days before the General Assembly is scheduled to convene.