Our opinion: A blade-less sword

In uncharacteristically swift action, the leadership of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has imposed a ban on most types of cash gifts.

The action – not legislation that could ultimately become law, mind you, but a House rule – comes in the wake of allegations that four lawmakers from Philadelphia took cash from a confidential informant in a criminal investigation.

Although it is against the law for legislators to take gifts or cash in return for any official action or judgment, the law also allows lawmakers and the governor to accept any amount of gifts, dinners, trips, event tickets and the like from anyone, although they must report them. Theoretically, that reporting mandate leaves them open to investigation into potential conflict of interest.

If the two concepts seem at odds to you, you are not alone, and one of the reasons that Pennsylvania has one of the weakest policies in the country when it comes to gifts for legislators. For instance, three years ago when Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati enjoyed a trip to the Super Bowl in Texas on Consol Energy’s tab, he was enjoying football from a primo seat within the confines of the law. When the news hit the fan, he said he would repay the energy company that had been a large campaign contributor and shale gas extractor, for the good time.

At the time, the governor and the General Assembly were considering what, if any, taxes or fees should be levied on Marcellus Shale gas producers.

That sort of thing can continue for both House and Senate members. The new House rule only pertains to cash.

Many other states have rules against lawmakers accepting any gifts, an idea that particularly appeals to people who are not so naive as to believe that gifting doesn’t even subtly affect the decision-making of legislators when faced with bills that might affect the gift-givers.

While the House leadership may see its new rule as a mighty sword in the fight for corruption-free government, it’s really just a grip, pommel and guard. A real sword would include a blade like a ban on all gifts.

If the House leadership wanted to lead the charge against corruption, it should have drawn a more substantial weapon.