When I hear or read the term “disqualified” I immediately think of some sporting event where a competitor in the event is either penalized or disqualified from that specific event for violating the preset rules of that activity. In boxing, certain punches are not permitted. Unethical actions within the ring are met initially with warnings, then point deductions and then a full disqualification. The most famous boxing disqualification came on June 28, 1997 in the Tyson vs. Holyfield match. In that match, Tyson was first penalized two points for biting Holyfield’s right ear. Shortly thereafter, Tyson bit Holyfield’s other ear. Referee Mills Lane examined the second bite and immediately disqualified Tyson.
The concept of disqualification exists to protect the integrity of the competition. The reason why there are firm rules and impartial administrators of those same rules is to bring assurance to the public that there was a “fair fight.” Sports are not the only place where one may be disqualified. Certain professions have rules and governances whereby its members can be punished for not operating within the clearly set of rules. As an attorney, I have many rules and obligations that I must comply with. The perception of an ethical legal system is such a serious matter that I am required to have at least one hour of ethics training every year to keep my license current. If there is an accusation of unethical conduct against an attorney, that accusation is taken very seriously and investigated. If there is a finding of unethical conduct, then depending on the level of seriousness of that conduct, the attorney may be warned, censured, temporarily suspended, put on probation or even disbarred.
Are politics any different than sports or professional licenses? Is there conduct considered to be so unethical that the unethical person would be disqualified from serving? Are there impartial administrators who can fairly and impartially look at politician’s conduct and make a fair determination for the consequences for such conduct? Just focusing on the federal system, it is very easy to identify notable events of unethical individuals and the consequences of that conduct:
Congressman Duke Cunningham and Congressman William Jefferson were caught taking bribes in exchange for using their office to benefit others. Cunningham pled guilty and resigned. Jefferson maintained his innocence. In the late summer of 1995, federal authorities executed search warrants on Jefferson’s home and Congressional office. Then minority leader Nancy Pelosi did not deal with the issue for nine months. Even though he was stripped of his committee assignments 10 months after the execution of the search warrants, he still did not resign from office. Surprisingly, Jefferson was reelected in 1996 before losing the general election in 1998. My conclusion is that taking bribes is a very clear standard that most voters see as crossing the line. It is also clear that if a politician’s own party does not take action, the public will take action ... eventually.
Just what other activities constitutes unethical conduct is unclear. Even if the conduct is deemed unethical, the consequences of that conduct are even more unclear. Covering up a felony (President Richard Nixon) disqualifies you from serving as President and it also gets you disbarred. Soliciting sex from a stranger in a bathroom (Senator Larry Craig) disqualifies you form serving as a United States Senator. However, a sitting President (Bill Clinton) having sex with a staffer and then lying under oath about the sex is not a disqualifying act from being President of the United States, but it does get you disbarred. Experimenting with drugs is not a disqualifying event for most offices (Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama). I am amazed that in many of these cases, the public was aware of these politician’s ethical lapses before they were elected! One of the most recently, notable examples involved a candidate for United States Senate (Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal). Blumenthal claimed on many occasions that he had actually served in Vietnam; however, he never served one day in Vietnam. Nevertheless, he won his party’s primary for United States Senator by a unanimous vote at his party’s convention.
I ask myself, “So why do we keep nominating and electing these ethically challenged individuals?”
When I was in high school and college, I was not perfect. But I did manage to stay drug free. Trying marijuana, cocaine or any other drug was antithetical to my belief set. As I was preparing this article I reflected on why I was so set against trying drugs. Then it occurred to me. I was more afraid of being disqualified from some future opportunity (college, career, politics, marriage to that perfect girl, church, etc.) than I was interested in trying something that was cool and fashionable. Right now we have candidates who have no history of having been afraid of being disqualified for any unethical decision or action that they make. Instead of fear, these politicians have learned words like “justification.” It is this lack of fear of disqualification that has resulted in a plethora of unethical politicians.
If there should be a fear of disqualification engrained in future politicians, what values should they aspire to? No drugs, no premarital sex, no cheating on your spouse, no pornography, no under the table favors for a friend that really deserves it, no cheating on tests ...ever. Are there any candidates that have lived to that standard? I can think of just One but He is not willing to run for office. Only One was perfect; the rest of us have all fallen. So what is the difference? The 24th chapter of Proverbs tells us in verse 16 “For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity.” So how far do we go in forgiving a candidate? I don’t have that answer.
Ethics reform has to start with a clear Biblical standard. It also must start with the mentoring of our younger persons on the concepts of ethics, accountability and disqualification. It has to include consequences for that politician if it is found that they violated those standards of ethical conduct.
The biggest obstacle to this idea is the party system. As it stands now, I am not aware of any party rule (Democrat or Republican) that permits the party to remove a candidate for unethical behavior. However, the party does have the ability to publically censure the politician. The Chairman of the New Mexico GOP Harvey Yates recently censured a gubernatorial candidate for airing ads that were untrue about another gubernatorial candidate. Yates should be applauded for taking this strong stand. Additionally strategies should include the party leadership not financing their unethical candidate for election.
Do such ideas take too much faith?