Markkula Center for Applied Ethics - Better Choices

Franken, Conyers, and the Duty to Stand Down

Lawmakers made the right decision

Hana Callaghan

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senator Al Franken just announced his resignation from the United States Senate. In his speech he admits to the inappropriate conduct alleged by some women, and vehemently denies allegations by others.  He believes that an ethics investigation will vindicate him, but that the time and distraction of the ethics process will impact his ability to serve the people of Minnesota to his full ability.

Earlier this week, Congressman John Conyers stepped down from the House of Representatives after multiple allegations of sexual harassment emerged. Conyers denies the charges. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Congressman Conyers has served in the Congress for more than five decades, and shaped some of the most consequential legislation of the last half century. But no matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate.” 

From a government ethics standpoint, I applaud both of these lawmakers in deciding to step down—not as punishment for as yet to be adjudicated charges, but because of their commitment to act in the best interest of their constituents. Yes, it is true in this country that a person is innocent until proven guilty.  That however is a criminal standard, and Franken and Conyers will hopefully still be allowed the opportunity to vindicate themselves. If they are unable to do so, they must then face the consequences. There is an interest at stake in these political cases, however, that is greater than the political careers of these two individuals—that is the interest of the people in a properly functioning democracy.

Elected officials are in essence public fiduciaries. They hold positions of trust.  We delegate authority to them to act on our behalf and we trust them to always act in our best interest. President George Washington understood this when he refused to seek a third term in spite of great political pressure to do so. Even though there was no law requiring him to retire after two terms, as there is now, he believed it was in the best interest of the people for another to take his place.  

Public fiduciaries have a duty of loyalty to put the public’s interest before their own political or personal gain.  In stepping down, Franken and Conyers, as did Washington before them, put the interest of the people in properly functioning democratic institutions before their own political ambitions. They understood that the Senate and the House must be able to conduct the people’s business without the distraction of scandal or the gamesmanship of politics. As Franken and Conyers have demonstrated, sometimes the best way to serve is not to serve at all.

Dec 7, 2017

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