What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: swilton
At today’s committee meeting, the Central Committee of the Utah County Republican Party passed a motion affirming its opposition to the so-called (and horribly misnamed) "ethics initiative" currently being circulated for signatures and support in the state of Utah. They join a growing list of parties, organizations, and people who likewise oppose this initiative on the grounds that the “ethics reform” it would create is, well, unethical.
Among other things, this initiative would: ultimately appoint five individuals—dubbed “super czars”—to form a commission that would police the legislature; give a lifelong appointment to members of said commission; ensure that the commission members are not accountable to anybody, including any court, the Attorney General, the Governor, or the entire legislature; create a code of conduct for the legislature that is more burdensome and restrictive than fair and reasonable; allow for any three people to file an ethics complaint, thus easily embroiling any legislator into a costly battle to clear his/her name (if innocent); and require that legislators adhere to the aforementioned code of conduct, but not impose any such requirement on the “independent minded” members of the commission. The list goes on.
Much has been said from proponents of this initiative regarding its importance in ensuring our elected legislators are honest and ethical. Problem is, the arguments I’ve heard can essentially be summarized as being part of a deceptive propaganda campaign to place five people into a lifetime, powerful office without any guarantees or even convincing arguments that 1) ethics issues will be more easily and properly resolved, 2) the findings of this commission will be impartial and accurate, and 3) such a commission is needed in the first place.
To be sure, there are instances when legislators act with impropriety or outright corruption. These cases can and should be dealt with as they arise. But the responsibility for reviewing and enforcing any code of conduct is not the responsibility of a limited group of appointed, unaccountable overlords. Rather, the legislator’s (elected!) peers, along with the constituents and delegates who are represented by that legislator, are the ones who determine whether that legislator is guilty and should be punished in some fashion.
Worse still, this initiative would completely reverse a long-standing bulwark of American liberty: the notion that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. Any three citizens of Utah could, under the proposal, band together and file a complaint against a legislator, and issue subpoenas as well. Upon doing so, the legislator would alone be responsible for proving his/her innocence, rather than the authors of the complaint having the burden of proof be put upon them. Clearly this is as un-American as it is foolhardy; one can easily imagine a number of parallel complaints being considered through easily-filed complaints of any person and two of his friends, with the legislators in each complaint being burdened in terms of both time and money in order to demonstrate and ultimately prove their innocence to the commission’s satisfaction.
Herein lies both the corruption and the cunning: if passed as proposed, this initiative would provide a two-edged political weapon for opponents of Utah’s conservative Republican majority to advance their agenda by subterfuge and sabotage. First, the remote likelihood that if elected, one might be the target of such an easy and costly complaint, would discourage a great number of people from running for office at all. (Proponents have often dismissed this argument but with no compelling reassurances to the contrary; it remains a very feasible possibility.) Second, sitting legislators who are the target of such complaints might be intimidated in voting a certain way if a potential complaint later filed is perceived as being retaliatory in any fashion. Given the ease by which these complaints may be filed, and the time, stress, and financial burden exacted from the legislator, one cannot simply dismiss these points by saying that it won’t happen. The opportunity is there; even if this political weapon was not crafted for this purpose, it will nevertheless be very enticing and easy to use, when convenient.
I said this in today’s committee meeting, and I’ll repeat it again here: this ethics initiative is no more about ethics than the USA PATRIOT Act is about patriotism, or the No Child Left Behind Act is about not leaving any children behind. These three measures—and countless others—are, in summary and at their core, attempts to consolidate power and centralize control. Sure, their names and talking points sound great in out-of-context theory and may sway the ignorant masses, but this campaign is not and never was about genuine ethics reform.
In Orwell’s 1984, the ruling party had as its slogan: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”. Should this initiative pass, we may as well follow this pattern and affirm that in Utah, “Corruption is Ethical”. At least we’d be honest.