This week I want to talk about ethics. Early in Ronald Reagan’s first term, he was frustrated by how many leaks occurred to the media from his internal, White House staff. The problem kept growing over several months at an unacceptable rate. When he had enough, he called is core staff together to demand that something be done to stop the press leaks. Nothing changed. Until one day when one of the inner circle said he knew who was feeding news to the press. The culprit was Reagan’s own chief of staff, James Baker. In Reagan’s wisdom, he called his inner circle together and said, “Gentlemen, this is unacceptable. I’m telling you, there will be no more leaks out of this office.” He then looked at James Baker and said, “Jim, you’re now in charge of stopping the leaks.”
Reagan’s answer was accountability. He could have handled this situation a hundred different ways, but he chose to place accountability on the person who was causing the problem.
Utah should take a page out of Reagan’s leadership handbook. Sadly, our state leaders seem to be headed in exactly the wrong direction.
Last legislative session I received a call from Representative Roz McGee. Roz is a very liberal Democrat from Salt Lake City. She had read some comments I had made to a newspaper about ethics reform and called to see if I would review language in a bill she was about to introduce in the state House of Representatives. She also asked if I might be able to support the bill if I found the draft acceptable.
Her plan was to create an independent commission to handle ethics complaints and actual violations. This new commission would be staffed by political appointments and its meetings would be open to the public. Complaints required the signatures of more than one person and even the complaints would be made public.
I read the draft and called her back. I told her that I couldn’t support her bill and explained that, while all with good intentions, the bill would do more harm than good. That was nearly a year ago. Today, with so many ethics stories in the news, many politicians, like our own Governor Huntsman, are grabbing the banner of reform and running to the head of the ethics parade. Interestingly, all of the suggestions for reform have this same element of an independent commission. And it’s still a really bad idea. Here’s why:
Ethics laws are really and only about one thing – maintaining the integrity of our public institutions. When people lose confidence in their democratic institutions, our democracy can no longer function as intended. Citizens need to be confident that their governments are working like they’re supposed to.
This is an important starting point in ethics reform. If the target is something else, like punishing crooked politicians, then we’ll never achieve the good government we expect. In this case, you steer where you stare. If our goal is simply to punish crooks, then we might as well start the witch hunts now. But if our goal is good government then we must begin focusing on maintaining the integrity of government institutions.
As we learned from Reagan’s example, we’re better off holding people personally accountable for their actions than we are further politicizing the system. An independent commission only further politicizes government, especially when its adjudications are open to the public prior to sorting out if there’s even a case to be made.
We saw this recently with the Greg Hughes affair. Accusations were made public – not accidently but quite purposefully – and political pressures began to take hold of a process that shouldn’t be political at all. Legal matters are difficult enough without political pressures piled on top.
The best answer is to get back to basics. Standards of conduct need to be put in print so that every legislator knows exactly what is expected of him or her. Rules should not be taken for granted, such as not accepting bribes. That should be stated specifically. Other rules should be more broadly affirmed. The U.S. Congress, for instance, has a general rule prohibiting conduct that would bring disrepute to the institution. That’s pretty broad but it’s also very appropriate.
Beyond this, each chamber of the state legislature should create a real, standing committee on ethics. It should be manned by equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. It should require signed affidavits from people filing complaints. Its deliberations should be on the record, but in the confines of the committee. They should NOT be open to the press or public.
We start with personal accountability, then we maintain the integrity of the institution, and then we make double sure to not politicize the process any more than it already is. The other important stuff – like gifts and conflicts and personal behavior – can then be safely and appropriately addressed.
For the Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.