Friday, June 12, 2009

Elevating form over substance

A snarky little article in today's Globe about Governor Patrick's clumsy but well-intentioned attempt to thank House Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray for passing pension reform with a box of cigars and a pricey flower arrangement provides a useful 'teaching moment.'

Someone - possibly but probably not Patrick himself - got the bright idea of taking a step toward reconciliation between Beacon Hill's Big Three by offering what was doubtless thought of as a token gesture of good will from the Governor to his two alienated colleagues. This kind of thing happens thousands of times a day in the real world, with no tortured examination of ulterior motives necessary.

In this respect, as in so many others, Beacon Hill is not 'the real world.' Once word of the gifts was out, taxpayer-funded staff had to spend the better part of the day addressing the important issues raised by a box of cigars and a flower arrangement. The gifts were "nice," the Globe noted... but:
They probably violated state ethics rules, which ban gifts of $50 or more to a public official in return for an official action. They certainly violated a key tenet of the proposed ethics overhaul Patrick is trying to push through the Legislature: an outright ban on gifts of any kind to public officials.
All true, but does it make sense?

Like the tax code, government campaign finance and ethics rules tend to build upon themselves. From a kernel of well-intentioned effort to limit corruption grows a massive, clumsy, nonsensical mass of regulation that inevitably detaches from common sense and logic.

Did Patrick's gesture to DeLeo and Murray violate the letter of the ethics rules? Sure. Does anyone on the planet think Speaker DeLeo pushed pension reform on the promise of a box of stogies? That Murray passed a note to Patrick last week suggesting her office could do with some floral enhancement? That the series of increasingly ludicrous statements, questions and defenses that flew back and forth between the Globe and the state's most powerful offices yesterday was anything but a waste of time for all involved?

The state's lobbying rules are similarly disjointed, relying for enforcement on an ugly combination of paper filings, online submissions and tangled laws, rules and regulations that nobody - including the professional staff in the Secretary of State's office - truly understands. Over the years, the rules have morphed from clear registration requirements for individuals paid money for their attempts to influence legislation on behalf of a specific client, to a morass of conflicting mandates that might (and might not) possibly apply to virtually anyone who comes into contact with an elected official. The registration and filing requirements are time-consuming, administratively burdensome and almost impossible to understand, even for experienced professionals. This has a doubly chilling effect: it discourages citizen petition of the government, and - perversely - it discourages registration by people who, under the original (common sense) rationale for lobbyist tracking, really should register.

Regulations - like bureaucracies and like weeds - tend to grow out of control shortly after taking firm root. Rather than continually pouring fresh fertilizer on the mess, from time to time these rule clusters ought to be torn out in their entirety and replaced by fresh plantings (how's that for a tortured metaphor?).

Governor Patrick gave a box of cigars and some flowers to his erstwhile adversaries down the hall. Folks opposed to the violence that these three are currently doing to our state will be sorely tempted to jump all over this 'violation' of the ethics rules. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, most voters will look at the situation and shrug. So what? They'll also view attacks based on this non-event as petty politics. The Big Three these days provide more than enough substantive fodder for legitimate criticism. We should focus on that.


  1. It's a reaction to the continued corruption and actions of the local politicians, not to the gesture of the gift.

  2. Oh sure - absolutely. And this crew deserves all the criticism it gets. But I think we need to be careful of not jumping like hungry dogs at things that most people see as silliness.


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