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Commentary: An Open Appeal to All Elected Officials

by Steven W. Stanger

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed …”

Frederick Douglass wrote these words in 1854 to awaken the consciousness of a nation about the injustices of slavery. I repeat his words here to awaken the consciousness of all elected officials about the ongoing injustices, incongruity and total disregard that members of Congress display for their constituencies while at the same time catering to the whims of their parties.

And now it seems we have reached the nadir of ineffectual government: the longest federal-government shutdown in the history of the country. The situation is unfortunately having significant detrimental and long-lasting effects on the hard-working people who have elected these officials, in good faith, to work to make their lives better. And all Congressional figures can do is play the blame game with nary an eye cast nor thought given to the unintended consequences of their actions. If they truly cared, compromise would have led to a solution long ago. Instead of compromise, Congress has blatantly and unforgivingly cast its constituencies aside in favor of party politics and advancing agendas that the majority of people don’t favor.

While there has been some apparent effort to resolve the current debacle, these efforts have resulted in nothing more than shallow photo ops designed to make our elected officials appear to be concerned. However, these efforts attempt to address the effects of the problem and not the cause of the problem. Members of Congress seem to have forgotten why they were sent to Washington in the first place. They choose to blame the other party, other interest groups, any other entity rather than themselves. Why? It is easier and less painful that way, and they believe it will help them when re-elections roll around again to extend their political careers.

Why is it that most of Congress and many elected officials at all levels of government do this? Because a critical, introspective behavioral self-examination is the most difficult undertaking that individuals, boards, organizations and, most importantly, elected officials can do. If elected officials would re-examine the fundamental purposes of a democratically elected body of government and refocus on the obligation of serving all constituents in their jurisdiction, perhaps they just may discover that they are the problem. Such a discovery may facilitate and clarify appropriate solutions.

Many elected officials exhibit three particularly troubling behaviors that lead to ineffectual governing not only in Congress but in state and local governments as well. These behaviors are hypocrisy, conflict of interest and power.

Hypocrisy: Hypocrisy is defined as the practice of expressing feelings, beliefs or virtues one does not hold or possess. Hypocrisy manifests itself in many ways. Hypocrites publicly espouse support for a project or concept yet refuse to embrace it when presented with an opportunity in their own positions or lives. Hypocrites support reform to gain an office, position or status, yet they reject it when entrenched in that position. Hypocrites presume to work for the benefit of their members or constituents, yet self-promotion and personal agendas consume their energies. Hypocrites outwardly support their colleagues but privately oppose their efforts and seek their demise.

Hypocrisy is unconscionable and vicious. Once identified as hypocritical, a person loses all credibility. One is a nonleader in a leadership position. One’s word is meaningless; integrity is lost. Worst of all, as a leader representing others, the pall cast upon oneself is also cast upon those represented.

Conflict of Interest: Conflicts of interest occur when individuals are in a position to influence a decision on policy, purchases or financial operations through which they might directly or indirectly receive financial benefit or give improper advantage to associates.

There is a fundamental premise of all elected or appointed offices. It is that the power of the position is derived from the people whom it serves. There is a trusteeship, a fiduciary relationship created between the people and those who serve their interests.

This relationship is considered so sacred that the United States Senate Code of Official Conduct contains the following declaration:

“A public office is a public trust, signifies that the officer has been entrusted with public power by the people; that the officer holds this power in trust to be used only for their benefit and never for the benefit of himself or of a few; and that the officer must never conduct his own affairs so as to infringe on the public trust. All official conduct of a Member of the Senate should be guided by this paramount concept of public office.”

Elected officials, appointed officials and board members must base their decisions solely on the best interest of those they serve. People are entitled to feel confident that the power entrusted to their leaders is being exercised for their benefit.

Finding themselves in situations where a decision, vote or financial arrangement will even remotely benefit his or her private interests, officials must recuse themselves from deciding the issue. To do otherwise is to betray the public confidence and trust.

Power: Leaders are entrusted with an extraordinary amount of power by those they represent. This is a basic tenet of a democracy. Leaders will make decisions and create policy that will affect everyone and not just those of their own party. Expectations are such that empowerment will effectuate benefits for the public good, that representatives will act only in the best interest of all those served. The responsibility is tremendous; the expectations are at times unrealistically high; and the pressure to perform is enormous.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Truth be known, there are far too many elected officials who have failed the test, and that is distressing for us all.

Why? Because some who are entrusted with power become corrupted. Their behavior and demeanor change; democratic ideals are forgotten; cooperation is forsaken; serving people is replaced by ordering people; colleagues and equals are now underlings; alternatives are discouraged; discussion and debate are silenced; opinions of others no longer matter. The old statement that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” unfortunately becomes a truism. We need to recognize that the abuse of power, rather than power itself, is very destructive.

This is perhaps the most serious of the problems plaguing Congress today. Uncooperative attitudes destroy working relationships, leaving in their wake broken promises, malaise and combative relationships not only in Congress and state legislatures but among ordinary people as well. Left to fester, these relationships, which serve no one’s best interest, will produce the ultimate outcome: the institution’s demise.

All elected officials at all levels of government need to take a serious, introspective look at themselves and answer some questions. Are the best interests of my constituents being served? Am I working for all my constituents and not just some? Am I properly funding my government’s activities? Am I being fiscally responsible? Do I truly listen to my constituents? Are democratic checks and balances being scorned? Is my decision-making in full public view, or do I condone backroom political antics?  

Humbly, I would encourage all elected officials at any level of government to use the current federal crisis to reassess the meaning and purpose of their position. Use this as an opportunity to make a fresh start. You need to rediscover your intended purpose and the spirit of service for those you represent. You need to rediscover cooperation, collaboration and – dare I say it – compromise. You need to eliminate hypocrisy, conflict of interest and the corrupting influence of power. You need to eliminate self-serving agendas. You need to re-establish the public trust. You need to work in the best interest of all your constituents. And you need to do it now!

Steven Stanger is a retired elected assessor for West Deerfield Township in Illinois. He currently resides in Baileys Harbor.