The Reform Issue 


On the matter of legislative ethics reform, the kindest thing that can be said about both political parties in Tennessee is that they are being disingenuous. It might even be said they are making whoopee with the issue. In any case, as plans for a special legislative session on ethics reform go forward by fits and starts, the sincerity of both parties leaves something to be desired.

Public consciousness of the need for ethics reform has been heightened as never before -- first, by the nonstop attention paid to former state senator John Ford, who became embroiled in a variety of investigations and accusations, and then, most crucially, when Ford and several other legislators were arrested, along with a couple of bagmen lobbyists, in the FBI's "Tennessee Waltz" sting operation.

A number of proposals for internal reform that had been in the hopper for a year or two finally got acted upon this year, but in the wake of the sting -- which came at the tag end of the regular legislative session -- more action was clearly needed. Hence, Governor Phil Bredesen's call for the special session, which may not come to pass until next year, it now appears.

Regrettably, both parties, each now led by an aggressive new chairman, have been grandstanding for weeks. Both have made useful suggestions, but their chapter-and-verse citations have somehow always managed to focus exclusively on the other party's derelictions, real and imagined. Things reached a climax of absurdity recently when the same legislative Republicans who had been denouncing Democratic Memphis state representative Lois DeBerry for accepting a "birthday" gift of $200 from an FBI agent masquerading as a lobbyist declined to criticize Bartlett state representative Tre Hargett, the GOP's leader in the House, for resigning to accept a "revolving door" job as a lobbyist with the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm.

Hargett was only "operating within the rules" as they existed, confided a couple of GOP sources, safely off the record. Well, so was DeBerry (the agent/"birthday" donor had never formally registered as a lobbyist), but that didn't forestall the barrage of legitimate criticism aimed at her from Republicans.

We can foresee a need for two additional special sessions, actually -- one to curtail excessive partisanship and the other on the issue of hypocrisy itself.


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