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What I’ve Learned from Max Brantley

Updated: Apr 15

Max Brantley at the Arkansas Times is once again grumbling about my work on ethics reform, which reminds me of the last time I met with him about it. In early 2006, I asked Max out for lunch to discuss what I thought was common ground on good-government issues.

Lunch was unusual, because he started to lobby me quite aggressively. He was critical of the common practice of lobbyists giving legislators various undisclosed gifts, such as free food and drink, and he told me that lawmakers should either require full disclosure of or mandate a ban on gifts. I thought, and think today, that these are both good ideas and told him I’d vote in favor of either one.

I was struck by what happened next. “That’s not good enough,” he said, more than a little angrily. “Everybody always says that. Nobody ever actually introduces anything. You need to sponsor one of them.”

Legislators, Max said, always can rhetorically commit to ethics reform, at no cost, secure in the knowledge that no one would ever actually introduce an ethics proposal. Max then started peppering me with questions about what I was prepared to sponsor, not just to support.

This was a pretty good argument, and at some point near the end of the lunch, I told Max that I would sponsor a disclosure requirement. At that time I was preparing to teach a class on how Congress works, and I was so struck by what Max said that after lunch I went home and wrote down his words in the margins of a book I frequently refer to—David Mayhew’s terrific Congress: The Electoral Connection—given that Max’s quote so perfectly illustrated a problem that Mayhew discusses more elliptically.

In late 2007, Rep. Steve Harrelson and I introduced a measure that would require full gift disclosure by every legislator in the House. I will always be grateful to the four other legislators who notified us immediately that they wanted to cosponsor it. Because Speaker Benny Petrus’s gift ban bill had received 89 of 100 votes in the House earlier that year (although it failed in the Senate), we assumed that there was sentiment for binding ethics reform. In retrospect, we were quite naïve.

I began to realize this after two conversations with House members, both of whom (separately) pulled me aside, explained that they favored a gift ban in principle, and then began shouting at me about what a terrible idea it was to require gift disclosure. Then I walked by a state senator near a Capitol entrance who spat at me, just loud enough for me to hear, “Grandstander.” In light of the gift ban that the Speaker had passed through the House earlier that year, this comment seemed ironic.

I had always assumed that, in case of any political difficulty, the media would be a helpful ally, given their professional interest in disclosure reports. But I was sorely disappointed by Max’s performance. Despite the fact that he had personally urged me, with some passion, to introduce a disclosure measure, he wrote this about our proposal on his blog: “I just don’t think it accomplishes much. But it would present the appearance that something had been accomplished. And business as usual would proceed merrily along.” Shortly thereafter, Max endorsed the sentiment that our proposal was “nearly meaningless.”

When another legislator reported to me that one argument that a high-ranking member of the House leadership was making against our rules change was that “Max Brantley agrees with me on this,” I could see the writing on the wall. The skeletal bipartisan coalition we had pulled together for gift disclosure was falling apart.

Any significant ethics reform, given the potential for massive resistance by lawmakers, will in part have to be shouldered by opinion journalists who recognize that it is both in their interest and in the public interest to see it through. It’s too bad Max Brantley doesn’t agree. He deserves some of the blame for the failure of ethics reform in 2007. Maybe he just finds it more satisfying to complain about the sad state of ethics today than to do what he can to solve the problem: I don’t really know.

In light of this, it was somewhat surprising for me yesterday to see Max advocate on the Times blog, yet again, gift disclosure: Hilariously, he wrote that what is needed is “at a minimum, far more thorough and itemized reporting by lobbyists and lawmakers.” We tried, Max, we tried. Until you decided to emulate Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown. Regrettably, on the topic of ethics reform, what I’ve learned from Max Brantley is that he probably shouldn’t be taken very seriously.

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