Are ethics bad for politics?

In his column in the Pioneer Press today, Capitol reporter Bill Salisbury, who’s retiring as a full-time political reporter, echoes a familiar theme over the years since ethics rules were tightened in the ’90s.

Back in the day, legislators on both sides of the aisle headed for a local watering hole or hotel at the end of a day of pummeling each other, and there they got sloshed thanks to whatever special interest paid for the booze.

The net effect, he suggests, was good government because lawmakers became friends.

Before a sweeping ethics law banned gifts from lobbyists in 1994, most days lawmakers were invited to receptions sponsored by special interests where the food and drinks were on the house. There were a lot more drunks in the Legislature in those days, but the free booze also lubricated personal relationships and helped them work together across party lines to get things done.

Since they got ethics, DFLers and Republicans are far less likely to become friends. In addition, the ideological lines between the parties have become more rigid. Now, for example, it’s almost impossible to find a “pro-life” Democrat or a “pro-choice” Republican. Our parties tend to favor ideologically pure candidates, and partisan hostility is more common.

Salisbury, of course, isn’t the first person to mention the gift ban, which Sen. John Marty championed in 1994.

In defending the ban nearly every year since, Marty has pointed out that there’s nothing preventing lawmakers from paying for their own booze.

And other things have changed over 20 years, too. Lawmakers are now much more afraid of the voter than they were in ’94, probably because it’s easier for voters back in the districts to find out within seconds of a lawmaker’s unfavorable vote, and it’s easier to organize an immediate pressure campaign against him/her. Politics has become almost as closely held as religion, for many voters.

Things have certainly changed at the Capitol, but probably not as much as they’ve changed on Main Street. For all of our talk about wanting politicians to “work together” and “compromise,” there’s very little evidence that it’s the way to stay in office anymore. That’s on us, and a few rounds at the bar won’t change that.