A Publication of WTVP

Do you think the political process is corrupt in our communities and in our country? If you said "yes," your opinion is shared by a majority of Americans. From a historical perspective, people have thought for a long time that a lot of unethical dealing takes place at every level of government.

Democrats can blame Republicans for corruption and lack of ethics in decision-making, and Republicans can blame Democrats. Independents can spread the blame, and cynics think anyone involved in the political process is corrupt. Currently, an ethics committee in Congress has tried to discipline Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas for violating ethics rules in some votes he cast. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has replaced some Republican committee members who voted to discipline DeLay.

A recent editorial in the Peoria Journal Star said Hastert's actions provided clear evidence that ethics doesn't matter in the political process in Washington. Yet the same sort of thing happened when the Democrats controlled the House. Democrats now are mounting a crusade to restore ethics and values to Congress-but that's what the Republicans did a decade ago when Newt Gingrich led the congressional change.

The same confusion about ethics and corruption can be found in local political bodies. As the voters in Peoria head to the polls April 5 to elect a mayor and members of the city council, they wonder whether the people they elect really will do a good job-or at least work honestly for what they believe. It's one thing to disagree with a point of view or a policy stance. It's quite another issue to violate the public trust.

Fortunately, in recent years, that's been the case here in Peoria. In some communities, however, elected officials don't seem to grasp the principle of "conflict of interest." They can't link their business to municipal or county business. Or, as in one community, an ethics question surfaced when a mayor took cash advances from the municipal credit card so he could head to the riverboat to gamble. He stated he really didn't do anything wrong in the end because he repaid the money. Yet, at the least, there's an ethical principle here-an elected official can't use public money for personal gain or risk.

Citizens seem to be alienated from the political process, voter registration has declined in proportion to the population (especially among the young), and turnouts usually are very low. When pressed, people say they don't think their votes make any difference-even when a few votes per precinct could have swayed an election one way or another. Deep down, however, their trust in the system and in the people they elect to represent them feels violated.

In our time, we need to strengthen the ethical understanding and expectation for serving in public office. I grew up in the Chicago area and remember that elected officials in the city "greased" their offices. In fact, one politician was said to have remarked when meeting colleagues, "I've got mine. How's by you?" The Bible says that you cannot serve both God and Money. The suggestion is that money can be a major god in the array of divine forces.

That seems to be the case when public officials deal with finding, receiving, and spending money to support and further their interests. And that's exactly what the problem is: They see themselves getting into office to further their own interests or the interests of those who funded their elections. Perhaps the ethical dilemma really is that elected officials may think their interests are linked to the public interest.

One of the big challenges in the political sphere is to let the public interest override personal interest and to seek out the benefits to the largest number of people. Another challenge in the political arena, from an ethical standpoint, is to determine whether elected officials will follow the way of expedience (whatever works) to a deeper principle of permanence (what generates the greatest good for the longest time). We also can move away from political correctness to a deeper principle of justice.

If we really are serious about embracing ethics as a fundamental way of doing business and making decisions in politics, our leaders have a big task ahead. We all could cope better with changes in culture, in the economy, and in the movement of a younger generation into the political sphere. But rebuilding the public trust will take a clear, vocal, and determined effort on the part of our elected officials to live by certain ethical standards so decisions are thoughtful, transparent, and focused on the long-term greater good of all Americans. IBI