Thursday, February 23, 2017

Should Same-Party-Affiliation Exclude Investigations on an Elected Official’s Misconduct?

A survey taken in February, 2017 of 1,571 political scientists on democracy in America reveals a possible problem regarding the extent to which government officials are sanctioned for misconduct. More than half of the respondents believed that the United States only partly meets or does not meet this criterion, whereas about 80 percent of the scholars insisted that the criterion is essential or important to democracy.[1] I submit that partisanship is a major obstacle to performance being able to meet expectations.

When the survey was released, Congress was on a week’s recess. Representatives and senators alike were facing contentious constituents back in the districts and states, respectively. An estimated 1,000 people attended Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) “town meeting.” Recalling the yelling and screaming, he later said, “I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate [me].”[2] Democracy is messy. Moreover, the making of law, which binds an otherwise free people, is inherently conflictual as different interests and ideologies contend for influence on the final legislative output. Given the delegated trust placed in elected legislative representatives, their misconduct should be subject to real sanctions.

Ideally, misconduct should be extended to placing party above integrity—that is to say, giving elected officials a pass on their misconduct simply because they are of the same political party. Constituents can be out in front of even veteran members of Congress on this point. In his “town hall,” Chaffetz heard a constituent insist that Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives should investigate President Trump’s conflicts of interest for instances of impropriety.[3] Even though much of the federal conflicts-of-interest law does not apply to the president, the American people arguably should know of actual instances in which the president has or is exploiting the relationship between his governmental power and business interests. Party should not trump integrity as concerning the obligation of members of Congress to provide a check on the executive branch, including the president.

I suspect that the force of partisanship on members of Congress stems in part from the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C.—such that the role of partisanship is perceived as being more significant than it should be and is to constituents back home. Of course, the threats doubtlessly made from higher in the party “food chain” provides an impetus to members of Congress to look the other way concerning the possible misconduct of colleagues of the same party. That a constituent expects her elected representative to put integrity before party in regard to investigating misconduct shows just how decadent the inbred culture of a political elite can be, even in a viable democracy. In other words, it is telling when an angry constituent is the adult and her representative is the child.

Democratic theory holds just the opposite—namely, that an elected representative can withstand the momentary excessive passions of the moment that have no such check in a direct democracy, wherein people vote directly on proposed laws such as was the case in ancient Athens. Put another way, representative democracy itself is a check against mob rule. It is telling, therefore, when someone from an angry mob is the adult in the room.

[1] Claire C. Miller and Kevin Quealy, “Democracy in America: How Is It Doing?The New York Times, February 23, 2017.
[2] Andrew Kaczynski, “Rep. Jason Chaffetz: People at My Town Hall ‘Intended to Bully and Intimidate’ Me,”, February 23, 2017.
[3] “Morning Edition,” National Public Radio, February 23, 2017.