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COMMUNITY VOICE

Is 'culture of coziness' in General Assembly same as conflict of interest?

Friday, April 19, 2013 - 12:01 am

Matthew Tully, political reporter for The Indianapolis Star, recently wrote of “conflicts of interest” that regularly occur in the General Assembly, including influential lawmakers who indirectly benefit from various legislation, or when legislators are feted by influential and powerful lobbyists.

Tully is not the first to be concerned about these issues. The Founding Fathers regularly and vociferously engaged the topic.

The columnist derisively refers to this arrangement as a “culture of coziness,” implying it does not benefit the average Indiana citizen or furthers the principle of transparency necessary in a democracy.

Tully cites one example, where Travis Holdman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Financial Institutions, and former bank CEO and now current owner of Holman Consult, “solicits consulting business from the same banking industry he oversees.”

He highlights numerous examples of lobbyists “wining and dining” legislators, such as when several lobbyists with the utility industry treated members of the House Utility Committee in a suite at an Indiana Pacers game.

Two primary concerns are raised by Tully:

•That these practices are regular and open, where an Indiana citizen, walking the halls of the capitol building when the General Assembly is convened, would find lobbyists and legislators interacting frequently; and

•Questioning whether this type of business influence is a necessary modus operandi, and thus “good public policy.”

James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, wrote of the “factious spirit (that) has tainted our public administrations.” George Washington, in his farewell address, warned “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,” arguing that unless the party, or “faction,” were controlled it would effectively be the ruin of the Republic.

Although it is generally agreed by scholars, that when the founders used the term “faction,” they meant a political party. However, as Madison made clear in his definition: A faction was any organization, “whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse (d) to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

The question is not to try to eliminate faction, simply because it is “sown in the nature” of man; the question is how to control its effects. And here the founders concurred that restricting freedom of choice, or constraining liberty of action, was not the answer. The best solution was to provide a republican form of government, not a democratic one.

The latter would incite the “tyranny of the majority,” while the former, which emphasizes a “delegation of government” to a number of elected citizens, would provide the wisdom appropriate to govern for the interest of the whole and not just one or a few.

Of course, we realize now that even a republican form of government does not provide an ironclad remedy for abuse of political power nor guarantee fairness of action in all circumstances, i.e., witness the examples of unwarranted influence of Indiana lawmakers cited by Tully.

However, this, I contend, is the point the founders were trying to make: First, if possible, don't succumb to the “factious spirit,” the spirit that divides and conquers, that relegates politics over principle; second, ensure instead at least a basic level of equity and opportunity for all citizens by providing structural and constitutional means for balance and fairness.

Stephen M. King, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, teaches political science at Taylor University.