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The High Duty of Elected Officials and Ways They Fall Short

With an election just completed (the alleged voting, anyway), a legislative session coming up, constant talk of spending to offset the impacts of COVID-19, and elected officials trying to mandate our way out of a disease, the duty of elected officials in their official positions is worth considering. The 1889 Institute recently published a booklet for state lawmakers that discusses various issues and possible solutions. Included in that booklet is a short discussion of the central duty of elected officials, which is expanded here.

What is the central, over-arching duty of an individual after having been elected to public office? Public oaths of office give a strong hint, and the Oklahoma Constitution is a good place to start. Article XV includes the oath of office, which states that an Oklahoma public official swears to “support, obey, and defend” the constitutions of the nation and the state, that the official will not take bribes, and that the official will discharge duties as best he or she can. The Oklahoma County oath of office adds that the official “will faithfully discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.”

The state and county oaths of office do not clash. The phrase from the county oath is arguably understood and intended in the state oath. It is similar to the oath of the President of the United States who promises to “faithfully execute” that office as required by the U.S. Constitution. The addition of the phrase in the county oath merely makes explicit the high duty individuals elected to office have to the people through the state’s constitution, which is clearly intended to serve the people. The preamble, after all, states: “Invoking the guidance of Almighty God, in order to secure and perpetuate the blessing of liberty; to secure just and rightful government; to promote our mutual welfare and happiness, we, the people of the State of Oklahoma, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” The people are the sovereign in our system of government.

Ultimately, every individual acting in an official governmental capacity in Oklahoma must act in the best interest of the people of the state as a whole, under the laws of the state, and as required by their oath. This high duty, executed as a public trust, is best characterized as a fiduciary duty wherein one puts the people’s interest above one’s own, preserving good faith and trust, with a duty to act in the people’s best interest.

This requires a far different mindset from the one all too prevalent in elected officials’ minds – the critical imperative of re-election and/or election to a higher office, or a future cashing in on the lucrative world of lobbying. It might be helpful to enumerate some specific motives that are not consistent with a fiduciary duty in order to illustrate the many ways public officials can go wrong:

  • If you only propose a measure as a special favor to a neighbor, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you back a measure just because your favorite, good-friend lobbyist asked you to, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you propose a measure mainly because of your own personal concerns, commercial or otherwise, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you promise to vote a certain way purely to help out a neighbor, friend, or lobbyist, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you trade your vote on one measure in order to secure the vote of a colleague on a different measure important to you, not out of principle but in an act of pure horse-trading (often called log-rolling), you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you promise to vote a certain way because a measure might benefit your constituents at the expense of everyone else, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you promise to support a measure for no reason other than an important campaign contributor asked for it, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you have it in your head that a compromise on principle in one area allows you to stay in office and do good things elsewhere, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If your position on a measure is determined by whether or not you like the measure’s author or its supporters, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If your head is turned by a celebrity, billionaire, or other important person, like a Speaker, President Pro Tem, or Governor, and your action is purely to gain their good graces, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you support or oppose a measure mainly because it will avoid an angry and energized constituency from actively opposing your election, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you support a measure or action because it’s popular, but there is no reliable evidence that the good things supporters claim it will accomplish might actually occur, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you don’t show up for meetings designed to inform you of the consequences of measures and actions under your consideration, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you don’t make a good-faith effort to obtain the best information about a measure or action under consideration from individuals with objective expertise, you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you refuse to hear people out regarding measures under your consideration in the most efficient way possible (usually open testimony in committee), you probably aren’t doing your fiduciary duty.
  • If you propose measures and vote on measures according to what is most likely to launch you into or continue a lucrative career, you most definitely are not doing your fiduciary duty.

Fiduciaries have the power to act on behalf of someone else under an obligation to act in that person’s best interest. Consequently, fiduciaries are held to extremely high and strict standards of honesty, diligence, and responsibility. That “means being conscientious, loyal, faithful, disinterested and unbiased, … free of deceit, undue influence, conflict of interest, self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment, bribery, fraud and corruption.” Unfortunately, it is difficult for the people, who are ignorant of much of what happens behind the scenes in lawmaking, to hold officials to this standard. Lengthy rules of ethics cannot anticipate every eventuality and are therefore not satisfactory for accountability, either. That means officials must police each other, and especially themselves, with an internal moral code that matches their fiduciary duty. Too many fall short, partly because they have never considered how great their duty truly is.

Here is a strong hint. Doing the right thing usually means doing the hard thing. That usually means that when public officials act faithfully in a way that fulfills their fiduciary duty, it can be unexciting, even boring. It means doing focused, deliberative, purposeful work, and admittedly too often goes unrecognized. In a legislative capacity, it means taking the time to consider all sides, objectively determining to the best of one’s ability what’s best for all concerned, and exercising adequate oversight to be sure that laws are being faithfully executed by bureaucracy. Sometimes, this is mind-numbing, thankless work, poring over stale data, sitting through lengthy hearings, and getting past bluster and slogans to get to the truth. It’s tough work, but it’s what elected officials actually signed up to do. They need to do it. The rest of us need to appreciate it and be thankful for it.

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute’s director and can be reached at:  

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.

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