By some measures, the government of Texas is quite ethical. In 2012, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Texas an “A” grade for transparency in government spending. It was one of seven states to earn top marks. The Center for Public Integrity, meanwhile, ranks Texas fourth among all the states for legislative financial disclosure. But rankings are a relative business. Emily Ramshaw, the editor of the Texas Tribune, takes Texas to task:
…With a conflict disclosure system rife with holes, virtually toothless ethics laws often left to the interpretation of the lawmakers they are supposed to regulate, and a Legislature historically unwilling to make itself more transparent, the reality is Texans know exceedingly little about who or what influences the people elected to represent them. They have no way to differentiate between lawmakers motivated entirely by the interests of their constituents and those in it for their own enrichment.
The overarching argument is that Texas’s part-time legislature and “antiquated” ethics laws mean that money has unusual influence in the Texas Capitol, and the potential for conflicts of interest is high. This has long been the contention of watchdog groups such as Texans for Public Justice, which reports that in the 2011 legislative session alone, nearly 3,000 industry and interest groups spent a cool $345 million lobbying the Lege. Ramshaw’s report focuses on a slightly different aspect of the situation: sometimes the lobbyists are beside the point, because the legislators themselves have a vested interest in the legislation before them.
It’s not hard to see how this could happen. Most of the legislators have day jobs, obviously; if they were living on their government salary, we’d hear a lot more speeches about poverty in Texas. That’s what the state constitution intends, that’s how it’s always been, and the system is often touted by Republican leaders, who are proud that Texas legislators officially spend most of their time as what Republican leaders would consider real, common-sense, working people. Many of the legislators agree, and talk about their professions frequently.
Much of what results is more or less above board. A state representative who owns a small business, for example, would benefit personally if the state got rid of the franchise tax, as some fiscal conservatives would like to do. But no one would expect the representative to recuse himself from all discussions of Texas’s tax policy on that basis. If anything, he would be out there making speeches about how he understands the issue because he’s a small business owner himself. That’s not an integrity issue, just as it’s not an integrity issue if a state representative who’s a veteran cites that experience in a discussion of veterans’ affairs, or if a state senator who has kids calls for increased funding for public education. There’s no expectation that politicians should be asked to check their private lives at the doors to the Capitol, nor should there be, really.
But there’s a difference between having an opinion about a bill and having a direct, discernible, and differential stake in its passage. This brings us to the other part of the equation. Texas’s rules still have plenty of gaps, and the laws that exist may not be reliably enforced. In other words, there are relatively few safeguards against a potential conflict of interest turning into an actual conflict of interest. The Tribune’s story includes a number of recent examples.
This brings us to what one of the genuinely strange things about Texas: many people, possibly most, apparently don’t have a problem with this kind of thing. There are, of course, exceptions. The most famous is the 1972 Sharpstown corruption scandal. Another example would be the controversy over Rick Perry’s 2005 executive order mandating (with an opt-out provision) that pre-teens get the new HPV vaccine. In that case it was widely noted that Perry’s former chief of staff had become a lobbyist for Merck, the pharmaceutical giant that developed the vaccine, although the greater outrage came from the religious right, which argued that the vaccine was tacitly condoning premarital sex.
But often, the response is a collective shrug. Maybe Texans are just used to it. The state occasionally produces a fiercely ethical politician. There was Sam Rayburn, the Democrat from Bonham who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for seventeen years and was famous for turning down corporate-sponsored favors such as junkets. There’s Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Lake Jackson who just retired after sixteen years in the U.S. House and two feisty runs for president. During the most recent campaign, he did get some donations from lobbyists–but only a few hundred dollars, less than anyone else on either side. But the typical Texas politician is a little more lackadaisical than that. “For virtue, try Minnesota,” wrote Molly Ivins in a 1988 column.
Another theory would be that Texans don’t necessarily see private-sector interference as being in conflict with their interests. Texas has always had a limited government, and the private sector and civil society have, historically, often stepped in to supplement it. The state’s leaders have welcomed their input. In his 2006 memoir, for example, former lieutenant governor Ben Barnes writes that when he was in public service, he and John Connally, then the governor, were determined to keep the support of the business community, and to encourage private sector participation in public life: “People like Jimmy Aston, Gus Wortham, and Walter Mischer really did put their money where their mouths were: their businesses were important to them, but they didn’t mind borrowing a lot of money to invest in the future of the state.”
Barnes clarifies that encouraging business interests to help the government is not to be confused with using the government to help business—a distinction that might, occasionally, be lost on the Lege. Still, lobbyists sometimes lean on the legislators to take up public priorities that might otherwise be neglected. At the moment, for example, the Texas Association of Business is pushing for the state to spend more on things like water and transportation. Those are investments that a majority of Texans would support, and that the fiscally abstemious legislators were reluctant to make the last time they met, although they might be warming to the idea this time around.
Another possibility is that Texans aren’t aware of how many conflicts of interest there are in the Legislature. Part of the reason this pattern persists, after all, is that there’s a lack of transparency. The Tribune’s also debuted a web app designed to let people explore the personal financial interests of their elected officials. A useful tool, even if Texans are inclined to give the private sector the benefit of the doubt—maybe even especially if they are. Conflicts of interest don’t just distort policy outcomes; they also distort markets. Surely most Texans would object to that.