The evidence from psychological science is clear: Even well-intentioned individuals are affected by their personal (often financial) interests when those run counter to the indvidual's role-based responsibilities. Put another way, conflicts of interest are important not only because they might tempt someone to forgo their responsibilities in favor of their personal interest but because, even if they earnestly work to fulfill their responsibilities, their judgment and their actions will be affected by the conflict of interest.
It's for this reason that I asked Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, when I met with him on Aug. 31 during his “Coffee with Congressman Banks” event, to be more assertive and to encourage his congressional colleagues to be more assertive in their role as a check on the executive branch.
At present, the executive branch operates as though it has no concern for conflicts of interest. Members have argued that conflict-of-interest rules do not apply to them, and perhaps they don't. But the problem is, whether or not the existing bureaucratic rules and regulations apply, the effect on judgment is real.
So even though the executive branch may not be concerned about its conflicts of interest, we – the people of the United States – should be. Because the executive branch appears to have no interest in ensuring that its judgment is unmarred by conflicts of interest, it is up to Congress to provide some kind of check.
This, of course, would mean more cumbersome rules, more paperwork and more red tape. I share the distaste for unnecessary bureaucracy that motivates the executive branch's moves to eliminate whatever regulations it can. But, when individuals or organizations abuse the latitude afforded their position, new rules and regulations are needed to correct these abuses and limit the damage. As I tell my children when we make a new rule for the house, every new rule arises from the abuse of a freedom. I want individuals to have the freedom to exercise judgment and discretion in the complicated situations they encounter. But when that space for discretion is abused, new rules become necessary. The executive branch's steadfast refusal to act as good stewards of the public good requires Congress to step in and act as the check it was designed to be.
Unfortunately, I could not provide Rep. Banks with an easy answer to how Congress should do this. Certainly, the House Oversight Committee could subpoena relevant documents and take testimony, but so far it has declined to do so. I hope that Rep. Banks will use his position to follow through and provide the desperately needed check on the abuses of position currently carried out by the executive branch.
I should also mention that Rep. Banks and I had a few moments to discuss Obamacare. As we could both tell, our views about Obamacare are in some ways diametrically opposed. And yet, we both recognize that it has significant problems. My solution would be to fix those problems rather than repeal it entirely. Knowing that in our short conversation, we would not be able to find much common ground on this issue, I simply asked that Rep. Banks and his staff avoid using the mistaken, misleading and often false talking points about Obamacare of his Republican colleagues.
As he put it in our conversation, it's important that our nation's conversation about health care be “intellectually honest.” I am hopeful that moving forward, it will be.
Abraham P. Schwab is associate professor of philosophy at IPFW and chairman of the Allen County Ethics Commission.