Expanding the S.C. House Ethics Committee to 10-member, bipartisan panel will be an improvement over its current composition. But it’s no substitute for getting the House out of the business of overseeing ethics issues, and instead turning it over to an independent board.
The same ought be done for the Senate Ethics Committee.
Ethics reform is certain to be a central issue in the next legislative session, and the General Assembly should look at the matter comprehensively. That has to include the role of the legislative ethics committees.
It should be clear to the Legislature that having in-house ethics committees is widely perceived as the fox guarding the henhouse. All other elected officials in the state — including constitutional officers — come under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission.
The expansion of the House Ethics Committee was made during the House organizational session last week. Previously, the six-member committee included five Republicans and one Democrat.
The House chose former Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, as its chairman. It was gratifying to hear Rep. Bingham acknowledge that the recent reform didn’t go far enough.
“This is not a cure-all,” he said. “With a balanced committee, it’s one step to set the stage for other reforms.”
Rep. Bingham said abolishing the committee should be considered, but that such a change would require a change in the state Constitution. And that would require voter approval in a statewide referendum, something that can’t be done until the next general election in 2014.
Taken in that context, expanding the committee to provide bipartisan balance is a step forward.
The committee obtained its highest profile ever last session as it considered complaints against Gov. Nikki Haley, related to allegations of lobbying for her employers while a legislator representing Lexington County.
The committee ruled in the governor’s favor, though its only Democratic member cast the sole dissenting vote on one of the four counts.
The committee is expected to get another high-profile issue next session, with a pending complaint from Common Cause about House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s expenditure of campaign funds.
There is already some added measure of accountability in the public airing of House ethics complaints that began with the Haley case.
But having an independent review of House members — and senators — would provide further assurance of evenhanded treatment. It should be part of an overall reform proposal next session.
Legislators should face the same form of ethics scrutiny as other elected officials in South Carolina.