We’re only hearing murmurs, but already one #MeToo-era bill potentially on track for introduction into the Rhode Island General Assembly for the upcoming legislative session suggests that lawmakers don’t quite understand their unique roles in our system:
A top Democrat in the state House of Representatives has written legislation that would create an “Equal Opportunity Employment Officer” in state government with the power to investigate claims of sexual harassment within the General Assembly.
Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, the deputy majority whip in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team, plans to pre-file a bill creating the office and a special committee on professional conduct with “broad investigatory and disciplinary powers,” he said in a news release.
A new office with “broad” powers to discipline elected legislators? That’s not how this stuff is supposed to work. Legislators aren’t employees; they’re representatives. The state government didn’t hire them. They aren’t there by contract or the assent of the other legislators. They’re supposed to answer to their constituents. Period.
That doesn’t give them a get-out-of-jail-free card if they break the law, but it should suggest wariness about appointing independent government officials with the power to “discipline” them. The potential for mischief is huge. From a narrowly political standpoint, such an officer could selectively enforce the rules and abuse the investigatory power to tar disfavored politicians. From a wider philosophical standpoint, one can easily imagine circumstances in which a district elects a legislator explicitly because of his or her beliefs about men and women only to find expression of those beliefs to be subject to discipline.
Representative Katherine Kazarian reinforces the impression that some legislators are losing sight of their unique role when she says, “All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation.” Again, they are not employees, nor are they constituents. They are adults whom we sent to the State House to battle for policy on our behalf.
They should be able to utilize the political system to hold their fellow legislators accountable and turn to voters for accountability. This sort of legislation makes profound changes to the roles of the people in our political system.