Most of these moralistic crusades start off with good intentions born out of some high profile scandal that leads good people to overreact in their response. We learned at the Salem Witch Trials that you can typically look for the people shouting their morality the loudest to be the ones you need to watch the closest.
There is no secret that our state’s Capitol has been the scene of several high profile incidents where mere mortal men were brought low by their ethical failings. In times like these, it’s easy to buy into the hype that because these people are in the public spotlight and their transgressions are known to the state that there are more moral failings in a building with a dome than lesser-known buildings, such as a factory, or a law firm, or even a newspaper building.
It’s been my observation from working at the Capitol several years ago that nearly everything that has been alleged as immoral today was infinitely worse then. I observed the Capitol during the final years of Democratic control prior to term limits and, just as now, flawed human beings served the public to the best of their abilities and some of those failings were made known. Although, much much fewer were made known.
Some will fairly point out that that was an era before camera phones, text messaging, and 15 years ago, society accepted worse treatment of women in the workplace than it does today. Thankfully, we have made strides toward equality as we have made technological strides.
However, some people say that, at that time, you had liberal legislators running the General Assembly passing liberal pieces of legislation and equally liberal editorial boards chose not to highlight the problems that they do today. It seems that there are systems in place today that when someone conducts themselves in a manner in which they cannot defend, they leave the legislature. I’m not sure what other system could lead to a better outcome.
The real question that rational people are asking is: why is a private affair anyone’s business? In some of these cases a private act crept into someone’s public service, but to me President Bill Clinton was right when he argued if it doesn’t involve your public duties then leave people’s private lives private. If I recall my high school years correctly, most in the media at the time agreed with the liberal Democratic president.
The worst part of all of this is that the vast, vast majority of legislators work all day, and like to build relationships with their colleagues and others in the evenings when they are hundreds of miles away from their families, and they get unfairly painted in with the minority who struggle with the lifestyle of being a lawmaker.
Proper resignations, and overly dramatic editorials aimed at issues that have nothing to do with sex, combined with good people overreacting, have created an environment akin to the Salem Witch Trials here in Jefferson City where everyone has a rumor about someone and can’t wait to tell you who is on the ethical naughty list.
The latest resignation has turned the Capitol into a frantic mess of finger pointers, and rumor mongers who sit on ivory towers and gossip with no basis in fact.
I’ve come to assume anyone whispering to me or one of our reporters that representative so and so is having an affair is themselves likely the one involved in less than upstanding behavior. In Jefferson City, just as in Salem, it’s typically the one who feels the need to proclaim their own self righteousness that is the least righteousness of them all.
Just as the new speaker showed leadership in saying that no one will serve in the House Republican caucus, whose private behavior detracts from their public duties, it seems time to show leadership again and combat the culture of rumors and busy bodies.
Everyone has a story to tell about someone else. If someone kills your bill, you start a rumor about their sex life. If you anticipate a leadership fight with a colleague, make up a rumor about who he is sleeping with.
Or better yet, say you saw him dancing with the devil, after all, it worked in Salem.
The only people who can put an end to this are the legislators themselves. Just as self policing is bringing about a more healthy environment for women to work in the Capitol, legislators are the ones who will have to begin calling each other out and demand either put their name behind their gossip story, so it can be properly investigated or mind their own damn business.
At the end of the day, these well meaning “ethics” reforms don’t seem to have much practical impact, but that being said, they don’t have a negative impact either, so if they can serve as a public relations benefit for the state’s public policy process then I suppose that is all well and good.
However, don’t be fooled. There is a coordinated effort backed by the editorial pages to enact contribution limits in the state. Good intentioned people of liberal persuasion have formed the conclusion that it is the only way to elect more Democrats, and there is a honest logical case for them.
Nothing short of passing contribution limits will bring you absolution in their eyes. Additionally, please tell us which of the proposed ethics reforms would have prevented any of the incidents that led to resignations.
There is also a very good case against them starting with it will make the money in politics much less transparent, and why should the government tell people what to do with their hard earned money.
Before the legislature goes too far down the path of eliminating the witches from Jefferson City it would do well to check the history prior to term limits and when contributions limits were the law.
Today there is much more transparency, and don’t let anyone tell you that legislators attended Baptist Church services upon adjournment back in the day.
It’s unfair to say that Missouri River didn’t flow past a bastion of ethical utopia then, or that it flows past a den of iniquity now.
Scott Faughn is the publisher of The Missouri Times, owner of the Clayton Times in Clayton, Mo; SEMO Times in Poplar Bluff, Mo.; and host of the only statewide political television show, This Week in Missouri Politics.