In political circles, “transparency” is right up there with motherhood as an oft-proclaimed virtue.
In practice, however, it’s reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s infamous parsing, telling a grand jury investigating his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Often, transparency is defined by politicians as something to be applied to others, but not to themselves.
Let’s begin with legislation that several Democratic legislators introduced this week to require those who lobby for clients at the California Coastal Commission to meet the same registration and disclosure requirements applied to lobbyists who work the Legislature or other state agencies.
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Well, yes, they should follow the same rules, and should have been required to do so for the last 40 years, ever since the Legislature created the Coastal Commission.
If nothing else, that requirement should have been imposed more than two decades ago when one coastal commissioner, Mark Nathanson, was convicted of shaking down property owners, although it was not, by any means, the only known example of influence peddling.
This week’s bill was sparked by last week’s decision by a commission majority to fire its executive director, Charles Lester, although the connection between the two is a little cloudy.
Nevertheless, increasing transparency about who’s doing what and why in politics is always a welcome step.
In the same vein, the Fair Political Practices Commission should be applauded for expanding the definition of lobbying from just personal persuasion to increasingly important outside activities, such as drumming up publicity and organizing pressure groups.
It’s also noteworthy that last month, the Assembly approved, on a strongly bipartisan vote, legislation that would provide more disclosure about who is buying ads for and against candidates and ballot measures, in response to the increasing prominence of supposedly independent campaigns. And several bills are aimed at creating more transparency in the secretive Public Utilities Commission.
The movement toward greater transparency is, however, not universal.
Legislative leaders have refused to even schedule a committee hearing on a constitutional amendment by Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, that would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before being considered. With that rebuff, the requirement is now in a proposed initiative ballot measure.
It’s aimed at the flood of hastily and secretly drafted measures that pop up in the final hours – and sometimes the final minutes – of legislative sessions, or are suddenly attached to the annual budget bill.
They are usually vehicles for policy changes – special interest tax loopholes, for example – that could not survive in the sunshine, hence the nickname “mushroom bills.”
Legislators who bemoan the lack of transparency in the Coastal Commission would have more credibility if they’d embrace it for themselves.