Doing the right thing in office

What happens when ethics and politics collide? I did a quick online interview about this with Kelley Harp, one of my key staffers from Senate President days (2003-2005), for a graduate course he's taking. With more time, I would have put more detail and polish into my answers; but sometimes the spontaneous reply is the truest. Here's how it went: KH: What did you see as the biggest ethical dilemma in general while serving in the legislature? Was this a result of "the system?" The structure? Something else?

JA: Balancing principle and practicality, a dilemma heightened by the short time-horizon seemingly (but not really) forced up public officials by the legislative and elections calendar.

KH: How did you satisfy this paradox -- going in line with party to keep leadership/the caucus and "the base" happy vs. going in line with your constitutents even if you disagreed vs. voting your own conscience. (I realize that these do not always conflict, but when they did, how did you approach the situation?)

JA: I was a strong party man because of my conviction that parties are the best way to advance policy goals while providing democratic accountability to the citizens. I honestly gave little weight to constituent views since I hold to the Edmund Burke definition of an elected legislator's proper role - more that of an agent, doing as he judges best for the public interest, rather than a delegate who acts under instruction of his voters. As for voting my conscience, that was the ideal standard, but always tempered by the prudential considerations of #1 above - I tried to be on guard against "conscience" as a synonym for self-willed positions out of touch with realities of statesmanship.

KH: Was there a situation where you had to break one ethical principle to satisfy another? (For example, at the federal level, sending troops into harm's way knowing some will die on both sides, but preserving the safety of the nation. I couldn't think off the top of my head of a similar state situation like this that arose during my time there. I'm sure there were many.) And if so, how did you handle?

JA: Countless instances of having to choose between bad and less-bad options with no truly good option in view, but I didn't see those as matters of principle in light of #1 and #2 above.

KH: What do you think needs to change in order to minimize ethical problems in the legislature? (e.g. term limits, elimination of parties, publicly-funded campaigns, etc.)

JA: More fidelity to the constitution, more exercise of recall and impeachment powers already existing in law, and above all, reduction of government's functions back toward their intended constitutional limitations - since the greatest driver of corruption is the amassing of too much power and plunder in government's hands, creating huge temptation to gain control of those levers by fair or foul. Parties are vital as a check on power. So is non-government funding of elections. Term limits are an imperfect, but for the time being necessary, check on power as well.

KH: Did serving in leadership present any unique ethical dilemmas?

JA: It only heightened the tradeoffs and double-bind situations discussed above, resulting in daily decisions being skewed toward practicality. I would ask myself each evening, only half in jest, "How much of my soul did Iose today?" But I never regretted being in leadership, for on balance it have me a lot more opportunity to advance my principles than I would have had otherwise. On the other hand, in writing a memoir recently, I had to conclude the long-horizon strategic approach (mentioned in #1) received less of my effort as Senate President than it could and should have.