Lawmakers' conflict rules need work

Oregon has long prided itself, justifiably or not, on a tradition of open government, relatively free of the kinds of conflicts of interest or out-and-out corruption that became commonplace in other parts of the country. But there are some glaring deficiencies in rules that are meant to reassure the public that their leaders aren't acting in their own self-interest.

Take, for example, the Legislature's approach to conflicts of interest on the part of lawmakers. As a "citizen legislature," composed of part-time representatives who have careers outside of government, there are bound to be times when an individual legislator's personal interests conflict with a piece of legislation.

Oregon's answer to that has been to require lawmakers to declare any potential conflict before they vote on the legislation in question — but the law actually prohibits them from recusing themselves from voting. In addition, legislative legal counsel sometimes tells legislators they don't have to declare a conflict.

The Oregonian reported last month that Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, sponsored and promoted a bill that passed the House allowing nurse practitioners to perform vasectomies. Nosse didn't declare during debate on the bill that he works as an union organizer for the Oregon Nurses Association, which lobbied for the measure.

The Legislature's head lawyer told him he didn't need to declare a conflict because the connection between him, the union and nurse practitioners was "too attenuated." Even if Nosse were himself a nurse practitioner, the lawyer told him, he needn't declare a conflict because Oregon law says a lawmaker can make a decision benefiting a group of people equally even as a member of that group.

Nosse may not have violated the law, but he could have declared a conflict anyway, and he should have. Then the public, including his constituents, could decide for themselves whether a conflict existed.

The U.S. House of Representatives' conflict rule is much stricter, preventing members from sponsoring or voting on bills that could benefit them or their families.

Unlike Oregon, California allows lawmakers with conflicts to recuse themselves, and requires them to do so if their employer has lobbied in favor of a bill. Washington bars lawmakers from voting on bills in which they have a "private interest."

Oregon law provides for sanctions, including censure, if a member fails to declare a conflict,  but relies on lawmakers to self-report. That's asking for trouble.

The Oregonian reports that senators and House members frequently declare conflicts. But of course it's impossible to know how often they don't — or are advised not to bother.

Naturally, Nosse's decision drew criticism from his Republican colleagues. The House GOP caucus said in a statement that it has been "the tradition" of the House for members to err on the side of transparency.

At a time when public distrust of government is higher than ever, "tradition" isn't enough. It's time to strengthen the rules.

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