The secret ballot is one of our more cherished rights as U.S. citizens. We can freely cast a ballot for the candidate of our choosing without fear of retaliation. Until, that is, we support a candidate with more than our time and our vote. Once you decide to hand over your hard-earned dollars to a candidate that you have particularly strong feelings about, you can kiss that anonymous vote goodbye and be ready for the backlash. The public certainly has a right to know who is financing a candidate’s campaign, but have we thrown the secret ballot under the bus to get it?
I’ve already written about how the proposed ethics initiative is a poor substitute for citizen action on ethics issues. It seems, though, that backers are intent on pushing through the proposal anyway and voters just may well sign off on it. In the interest of putting the best law forward, I’d like to suggest some changes to both calm fears and gauge its effectiveness.
First off, the method of picking the members of the commission needs an overhaul. Requiring the leadership of both parties to agree twenty times on who will be randomly selected from is already a bit of a stretch, but allowing the sponsors of the initiative to pick the names should they deadlock is unheard of. Instead, why not allow private citizens to submit their names and names of other qualified candidates for consideration? It would provide a much bigger pool to choose from and, once filtered for any potential conflicts, would not be subject to any kind of partisan manipulation to throw selection to the petition sponsors.
Second, there needs to be a sunset provision. I honestly wish that all laws had such provisions so that they could be re-evaluated from time to time for effectiveness and relevance. If the ethics commission has done its job well 10 years from now, it has nothing to fear from the voters. If, however, it turns into a nightmarish bureaucracy the way legislators have feared, we have the chance to turn it out on its head and consider something new.
Third, there must be clearly defined goals of the initiative. While the specific rules seem like good ethical guidelines, voters need to know what it is that would be accomplished by implementation. This also provides a way to measure progress when it sunsets.
Fourth, shift the burden of proof more heavily onto the accusers. I know you guys have a big pitcher of Haterade for legislators, but you cannot simply ignore the presumption of innocence.
Even with these changes, I would still oppose the initiative as presently constituted since I do not believe it to be the best solution to the problem. I would hope, however, that such changes would make it more effective, accountable, and equitable should it be passed.
In a responsible republic, citizens must be participatory in choosing and carefully watching their chosen leaders. Without the fear of retaliation from the governed, those leaders feel emboldened to abuse the public trust. When citizens let their guard down and a holder of elective office abuses the power given them, we should rightfully run them out of office. Instead, we throw up our hands, yell that the system is beyond repair, and abdicate our responsibility for fixing things to someone else. All too often, that someone else has little reservation about the abuses that drove others to inaction. Thus the vicious cycle continues, constantly winnowing down the participants in our electoral process to a smaller and smaller minority. The current push to create an ethics commission is just an indulgence of that collective laziness.
When I initially read that Rep. Kory Holdaway was resigning his seat in the legislature to become a full-time lobbyist for the UEA, I found myself thinking “great, another revolving door lobbyist.” I had fully anticipated some kind of blogging outrage at the revolving door especially in light of the current ethics initiative being proposed. To date, the only mention of this I have seen is a small blurb in this week’s City Weekly. Isn’t anyone else concerned about this?
While Sen. Steve Urquhart points out that Rep. Holdaway’s existing personal relationships may help repair relations between the legislature and the UEA, groups that have often been at odds one with another, that existing relationship is the problem. Rep. Holdaway will be able to get face time that many other lobbyists would not and peddle influence that another lobbyist would not have.
This kind of behavior is what’s at the core of the concerns over ethics in Utah. Yet, for whatever reason, bloggers, news media, even the people spearheading the ethics petition have failed to latch onto this. Stop giving Rep. Holdaway a free pass and let him have it.
After the legislature decided to do as close to nothing as possible about perceived ethics problems earlier this year, some citizens were left a bit steamed. There do appear to be a lot of conflicts of interest in the legislature (like a full-time lobbyist as a legislator) and while there have been some rather blatant conflicts of interest (I’m looking at you, Aaron Tilton), tightening up gifting, spending, and lobbying rules is an ineffective way to take care of the problem.
The real problem is that when each legislator is given enough power to push through legislation on their own, they become a magnet for lobbying. No matter how many rules you make, no matter how many laws you pass, no matter how harsh the punishment, the problem of a single legislator wielding considering individual influence and power will still exist. This is only compounded when the number of constituents represented by each of them increases, resulting in a need for even more funding to effectively campaign for office.
I think the appropriate remedy for this situation is to keep adding members of the House of Representatives, both at the state and federal levels. Not only do you dilute the power of the individual lawmakers, you greatly increase their responsiveness to constituents and spread the lobbying dollars much more thinly. It may also put an end to oddly-drawn district boundaries since they can be made smaller and thus more compact. The door is also opened to third-party and independent candidates who can invest plenty of time and not a lot of money.
Additional rules only create additional loopholes. Let’s go for a solution that really takes care of the problem.