Nine years ago, with much fanfare, then Governor Spitzer and Legislative leaders announced passage of the Public Employee Ethics Reform Act (PEERA). Equipped with a new ethics enforcement agency, the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), and a host of new statutes New Yorkers were led to believe that that these reforms would change the culture and restore faith in government.  Since then, many public officials have been arrested and forced from their government positions.

Five years ago, with equal fanfare, Governor Cuomo and Legislative leaders announced passage of the Public Integrity Reform Act (PIRA). Sound familiar? This edition of “sweeping reform” also created a new ethics agency, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), and again tweaked the law. By this time the expectations of the public were numb. 

Sadly, within the next month, both the former Speaker of the Assembly and the former Senate Majority Leader will be sentenced in federal court based on public corruption convictions.

Like a cruel joke, the cycle begins anew with editorial boards and self-described “good government” groups all clamoring for more reform. Government leaders promise responsiveness. The public snores. Please stop the madness.

If history has taught us anything about the notion of adequately “fixing the problem” by passing “sweeping ethics reforms” it is this: While hope springs eternal, the goal is illusory. Ethics laws do not make people more ethical, just as the passage of Prohibition did not make the nation more sober and moral. Ethics laws are important guides for the honest public servant. Today, the balm of proposed ethics laws to heal the state has become a convenient foil for a corrosion that was allowed to slowly build upon our state’s government.

To improve the situation, political leaders should acknowledge the practical limitations of ethics, lobbying and campaign finance agencies, and accordingly channel their efforts.  Compliance agencies are not the same as the US Attorney or the State Police, nor should they act like it. The confidence in public ethics enforcement further diminishes when these regulatory agencies stray from their statutory mandate and seek to impose new rules, such as JCOPE’s recent opinion governing communications between public relations firms and media editorial boards. 

If not more painfully unremarkable laws, then what to do given this sad state of affairs? Let’s start with a serious conversation on the real and present danger to our democracy. We have a crisis of participation in our republic at all levels of government. By any metric, from voter turnout to sound and plentiful candidates for local elections, our democracy is suffering from advanced atrophy.  

Let’s start a candid conversation on fundamental problems, question bedrock policy and political norms, and think outside the box. It might even be fun.