Ethical behavior and its role in government

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Ethical behavior is an ongoing point of argument in government, and in politics in general.

Having recently been appointed the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, the questions surrounding ethical behavior in Idaho state government are prominent in my mind. Last year we began to conduct “respectful workforce training” at the beginning of each legislative session. Prior to that, we had separate ethics policies for both the House and Senate, but no over-arching guidelines for everyone who works in the Capitol Building.

In 2017, there were two distinct ethical allegations that became public, involving legislators. One instance was a valid breach of conduct, and the other was misunderstanding that was perpetuated by a third party. With the national attention focused on gross misconduct by public figures, the Legislature, and the governor’s office, was motivated to strengthen our policies within the Capitol Building. The result of this was “respectful workplace” training and a “Respectful Workplace Committee” that would handle any complaints of inappropriate behavior within the Capitol Building. This committee would attend to issues that arise between members of the executive branch, lobbyists, pages, members of the media, the general public, and legislators. Because legislators are not specifically employees of the state, but are elected by the public, any complaints against legislators must go through the Ethics Committee of the respective body, meaning either the House or Senate. Charges against legislators can only be brought by members of the respective body. However, complaints against legislators can be brought to the Respectful Workplace Committee, but that committee can only provide a recommendation to the legislative Ethics Committee for consideration. It cannot adjudicate the charge.

The most obvious instances to be addressed will involve an alleged departure from moral standards, a digression from what is normally acceptable behavior in a workplace, and specifically involving someone in a position of authority. These are occurrences that, in most cases, are a clearly discernible retreat from “common sense,” and should be fairly simple to conclude. There are other instances, though, that are not so clear, and involve a decision more of the ethics of someone’s behavior and less of a moral judgment. That then begs the question of what is the appropriate ethical behavior for a legislator. This may be a question too large for a weekly column, but I will offer some thoughts.

A primary question is what, or who, defines the standard? While there is a large body of generally agreed upon norms, there are also varying degrees of propriety from organization to organization, and from culture to culture. In our post-modern, relativistic culture, definitions of ethics and morality are fluid, but I would suggest that there is a higher standard that those in government, and especially those in elected positions, must follow. Our responsibility to our constituency, not only the people who voted for us, but also the people we represent, should provoke a desire to be “above reproach.” We should be careful that our conduct does not impugn the office, and give further reason for the general public to think of elected officials as self-serving, crooked individuals.

Besides the usual transgressions, there are a host of smaller offenses that would still fall under the title of “unethical” when questioned. Many of these lesser breaches come at the pursuit of political power and notoriety, and include a variety of false claims and accusations designed to influence public opinion. There is also the potential for some to misuse the privileges that are granted to legislators while in Session. While most of these would never rise to the level of requiring censure or expulsion from the body, they still affect the public perception of government in general.

A well-informed public results in a stronger republic, and ethical representation strengthens public confidence in that government. It is an honor to be elected to public office, and that honor demands a higher ethical standard.

Sage Dixon represents Bonner and Boundary counties in the Idaho House of Representatives, District 1A.

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