Obama Springfield ethics bill background briefing. Not “an overly onerous bill,” Obama said at the time.

SHARE Obama Springfield ethics bill background briefing. Not “an overly onerous bill,” Obama said at the time.

CHICAGO–Barack Obama points to ethics legislation he helped pass in Springfield as one of his central achievements while in the Illinois State Senate. He uses the measure to bolster his credentials as a reformer. Obama also uses the bill to suggest he is willing to buck the system and take political risks and hits. But at the time the bill passed in Springfield, Obama never suffered any significant political backlash that anyone noticed.

John McCain at the second presidential debate did not dispute that Obama had some achievements–it’s just that they did not come at any political cost and did not demonstrate the political courage that he has, McCain said, noting party battles left “scars on my back.”

Former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who did crusade against local corruption–and whose political career suffered for taking on the Illinois political establishment–on Wednesday in a conference call organized by the McCain campaign picked up on that theme.

Work on that Springfield ethics bill, said Fitzgerald–who serve in the state senate with Obama–“really did not take any courage. ” He pointed to how little opposition there was to the bill to make his point. The record shows the ethics bill Obama talks about passed on lopsided roll calls: in the state Senate 52-4 and the Illinois House 102-3.

My colleague David McKinney, the Chicago Springfield Bureau Chief, prepared a briefing on the bill. He also pulled the speech Obama made on the floor of the Illinois Senate and the language may ring a bell–Obama talked about a public “increasingly cynical about Springfield and the General Assembly.” Obama often has talked about cynicism in Washington during his presidential campaign.

Here’s the McKinney brief……

By David McKinney

Chicago Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief

SPRINGFIELD, ILL–The ethics legislation Obama has said was the first significant bill bearing his name in Springfield was hailed by its chief Senate sponsor, Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), as the “most important piece of campaign finance reform legislation in 25 years.” Before it passed, Dillard thanked Obama by name, as well as the primary House sponsors, Rep. Gary Hannig (D-Litchfield) and former Rep. Jack Kubik (R-Riverside), and confirmed all four caucuses had input into the bill.

Initiated by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and backed by government watchdog groups at the time, the legislation passed the Senate 52-4 and the House 102-3. It was signed by former Gov. Jim Edgar and took effect in January 1999.

The legislation’s biggest components were the prohibition against the personal use of campaign funds, a ban on accepting lavish gifts from lobbyists or others with state business, and the requirement that campaign finance reports be posted on the Internet for the first time. It also put a stop to campaign fundraising in state offices and the Capitol and prohibited fundraising in Springfield when the Legislature is in session.

Obama stood up and spoke briefly on the bill, stressing its importance but also predicting that it would not be “overly onerous” on lawmakers.

During debate, one opponent, former Sen. Denny Jacobs (D-East Moline), characterized the bill as “the wrong way to go” because it would enable veteran legislators in office prior to July 1, 1998 to spend their campaign cash in any way they wanted – a point Obama did not address during his remarks. Those who entered office after that point could spend campaign money only on campaign-related expenses.

Here is the text of what Obama said when the bill was debated on the Senate floor on May 22, 1998:

“Thank you, Mr. President. I stand in support of this bill. Just wanted to speak briefly on its behalf. There’s been a lot of discussion in all the caucuses about this bill, and I recognize as I said during the committee hearings, that this is one of the most difficult issues that we can potentially deal with. It’s something that we all have an opinion about. It’s something that everybody feels affects them directly.

And it is a piece of legislation that some people can argue is not tough enough and some people can argue is far too restrictive. But I think the point that I’ve made throughout this process – and I want to commend Senator Dillard, as well as the Representatives, Hannig and Kubik, on the House said – is that this bill moves us in the right direction.

I think it sets a standard for us. It communicates to the public, that is increasingly cynical about Springfield and the General Assembly, that, in fact, we are willing to do the right thing, that we conduct our affairs with a high degree of integrity. I think that for all of us here in this chamber, who I’ve learned to respect a great deal over the last two years, this will not be an overly onerous bill. Most of the practices contained in this bill are practices that all of us already abide by, and I would very much urge my side of the aisle, as well as the other side of the aisle, to provide an affirmative vote.”


That 1998 ethics bill, it should also be noted, did nothing to stop government corruption under former Gov. George Ryan, now a federal inmate, or Gov. Blagojevich, who is being investigated by the feds.

The ethics bill was filled with loopholes, enough so that some lower-level staffers involved in its production likened it to “Swiss cheese.” Some lawmakers took out loans to artificially inflate their campaign fund balances on July 1, 1998, so they could later claim a higher amount for personal use. Officeholders moved their fundraisers from the off-limits confines of Springfield to Chicago, routinely shuttling back and forth on legislative session days to collect campaign cash in Chicago.

The actual gift-ban prohibition, essentially a few sentences long, contained more than two dozen exceptions, allowing interest groups to fly lawmakers to the Carribbean on “educational missions” that were little more than all-expenses-paid junkets. And tough new penalties imposed under the law for the late disclosure of campaign fund documents resulted in six-figure fines against some officeholders, but those steep fines later were watered down by the State Board of Elections.

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