Don’t Get Me Started: December 2009
Conservatively confused; ethics reform.
by John deJong
Sometimes you find out something is legal only when someone proposes making it illegal. Take campaign contributions. I’ve always thought the only justification for the massive amounts of money contributed to what have become, all too often, beauty contests, was that they were protected as free speech. The idea that a politician might receive campaign contributions that could then be used for personal expenses sounds like bribery. I presumed that would be illegal.
So I was surprised to hear that banning personal use of campaign funds was one of the new restrictions proposed by Utahns for Ethical Government’s initiative— and, by extension, a restriction Utah Republicans are incensed about.
I wonder what Mike Leavitt did with upwards of $500,000 in campaign funds he had when he left office to become George Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services. What did Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff do with his unspent campaign funds when he dropped out of the race for Bob Bennett’s senate seat?
Most politicians donate leftover funds to other politicians, presumably those of the same stripe—an insidiously effective form of political leverage. But it is also currently possible for a politician to use the funds to straighten out their finances and reimburse themselves for the “costs” of public service. Neither of these options would be allowed under the Ethical Government initiative.
Utah Republicans have proposed a number of stop-gap measures in an effort to forestall the Ethical Government initiative. The latest is the proposed creation of an independent five-member ethics commission, composed of former legislators and judges. This toothless commission would pass its recommendations on to the foxes in either the House or the Senate ethics committee for resolution.
“Do I hear a motion to table [kill] the unfavorable ethics report on Senator Blahblah?”
“Do I hear a second?
“All those in favor say aye.”
“Motion passes, next order of business.”
The major problem with ethics in Utah’s legislature is the lack of any meaningful standards to hold legislators to. Currently it is only necessary to disclose conflicts of interest.
“Yes, I’m in the construction business.
“Yes, this bill would benefit me personally.
“Yes, I’m gonna’ vote for it.
“And yes, the Utah Republican party, which is funded by the special interests interested in this bill [over 80% of Utah campaign contributions come from corporations], would like you to vote for it… if you ever want to see a campaign contribution from them, or me, again.”
Probably the most significant part of the reform is banning corporate donations. The federal government and most states ban campaign contributions from corporations. Utah allows its corporate citizens to make campaign contributions but currently bans donations from labor unions.
Utah is one of 14 states that have a provision for a citizens initiative process, granting citizens the right to submit proposed laws directly to the voters. The legislature has made the initiative process as cumbersome as possible, to forestall just this kind of direct democracy. The courts recently struck down even more onerous restrictions. But the Utah constitution grants the initiative process equal standing with the legislature.
Ethics reform is too important to leave to the legislature. While not perfect, this initiative is far better than anything we’ll ever see come out of the legislature.
If you haven’t signed the petition go to www.utahnsforethicalgovernment.org to find out where you can sign. If you really think democracy is salvageable, sign up to do some petitioning yourself.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, last month a Utah Senate committee spent some of its valuable time discussing the use of the phrase “liberally construed” in various laws already on the books.
Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield was quick to deny any attempt at conservative correctness. But, one can just imagine the hairs on Republicans’ backs rising higher and higher each time they read the words “liberally construed” in Utah’s statutes.
The Utah Valley contingent of the committee seemed concerned that evil judges and bureaucrats would use the leeway to “overreach their authority to the detriment of individual freedoms.”
Of the 55 instances of the phrase found, most allow discretion on the part of various executive branch agencies to widen the application of certain regulations. For instance, to include a new member of a class of regulated substances.
Not satisfied with looking at laws that contain the phrase “liberally construed,” the committee directed its staff to root out any cases where executive agencies are liberally construing laws and regulations without specific statutory direction.
This amounts to the legislature trying to make the executive branch follow the exact words of every law.
This would be fine if the exact wording of every law made plain sense and took into account every possible situation. But many laws are cobbled together with willfully vague or arcane sections. A little bit of the House version, a portion of the Senate version, some wording added at a lobbyist’s behest, a couple of last minute amendments and you’ve got laws that are clear as mud.
Asking executive agencies to faithfully follow the letter of the law is like asking them to faithfully follow the recipe for sausage: take a couple of feet of intestine, some mystery meat, one medium rat turd, three hanks of hair, a dust pan of sawdust, a smidgen of brain and enough grease to make it sizzle when it’s cooked and stuff into the casing. How could anybody but the legislature follow a recipe like that?
I’m not sure whether the inquisitors in this case are motivated by the presumption that judges and bureaucrats are as petty and tyrannical as themselves, or because they think they are the only ones in government with any integrity and that everyone else is petty and tyrannical.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.