It's one thing for public officials to fail to do the right thing. It's another, much worse, thing for the rules to actually forbid them from taking the ethical high road.
In the Utah Senate and House, every member is required required to cast a vote on every measure that comes up for consideration. The fact that a senator or representative may have a conflict of interest quite explicitly does not matter under the rules of the Legislature.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, attempted to do something about this earlier this legislative session. He put forward a resolution that would change the House rules and allow just allow a representative to abstain from a vote. It would have been a perfectly reasonable change in the rules, but it was bottled up in the House Rules Committee last week and sadly shows little hope of getting any further on the last day of the session.
There are some complicating factors that those who have opposed Nielson's resolution have outlined. Those objections are not completely without merit, but the reluctance to go ahead with giving members of the House the option to pass seems to be largely a result of overthinking the issue.
Defining a conflict of interest can be difficult. That is particularly true of a part-time lawmaking body, such as the Utah Legislature, where most members have other jobs, businesses, interests and areas of expertise. And so do their spouses, children, friends and business associates.
Making it illegal for a member to vote on a bill in which he or she has a particular interest could also be read to bar members from offering the body the benefit of their own specialized knowledge. Insurance brokers would be silenced on insurance issues. Law enforcement officers could be forced to abstain on just about any change in criminal or traffic law.
Except. Nielson's resolution does not say why members should abstain, or even attempt to require that anyone do so. It says nothing about conflict of interest, nor does it attempt to define a conflict, or differentiate a troublesome conflict from useful expertise. All it would do would be to give each member the right to abstain, and an opportunity to publicly explain, then and there, on the floor, why, in that representative's opinion, it was the right thing to do.
Those choices could be evaluated by the public, particularly each member's constituents, to determine whether the abstention was a matter of ethics or just a disingenuous way to dodge a tough decision.
For a legislative body that has previously expressed admiration for the virtue of abstinence, it would seem a good fit to have a rule allowing a lawmaker to not do something that could have negative consequences.
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