By Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia
Recently, we have seen two very serious ethics violations in the Missouri Legislature aired in the press. As we all know, such legislator behavior is neither new, unique, nor isolated. The permissive culture in the legislature will continue until we enact and enforce meaningful ethics reform.
In May, I was appointed to a Working Group on Interns to address this issue. Since that time, the Working Group has not met. As frustrating as this has been, my focus is on the outcome, not on the process. We must create a culture shift in the House and implement policies that specifically address the abuse of power by elected officials. This abuse of power undermines the ability of student interns to maximize their educational experience at the Capitol and destroys our credibility as legislators.
I feel responsible to address this issue directly. More than three-fourths of Capitol interns come from higher educational institutions in my district. No intern, regardless of institutional affiliation, should ever be forced to contend with a legislator’s abuse of power.
Because the Working Group was never convened, I felt compelled to take the initiative. Over the summer I consulted with interns and former interns, university officials responsible for interns, Title IX specialists, and attorneys to define the professionally appropriate parameters involving the interaction among House members, staff, interns, and others in the Capitol.
The relationship between House members and interns is inherently unequal. Existing policies are insufficient to address the serious ethics violations surrounding legislator and intern interaction. Reform must go beyond the current standard Sexual Harassment Policies.
Let me be very clear: The primary responsibility for ethical conduct lies first and foremost with Members of the Legislature. We should never infer that the problem––and therefore its solution––lies with the student interns. Changing intern behavior (and clothes) fails to address the real problem. This paternalistic approach is inadequate at best and is demeaning, at worst. It inexcusably absolves House members of responsibility and perpetuates the toxic culture in Jefferson City.
A dress code already exists for everyone working within the Capitol. The only change required is to update the outdated sexist language. So yes, let’s clean up the language to bring the code into the new century, then let’s address the real issue: The power differential which leads to legislative abuse of office.
My recommendations for additions and modifications to the House Member and Intern policies do precisely that. Primary among them is a Workplace Relationship Policy that clearly delineates the boundaries that must be observed among legislators, staff, and interns.
Let me repeat: The House of Representatives must take responsibility for its own ethical conduct. We should never infer that the problem––and therefore its solution––lies with interns. My recommendations reflect our responsibility as House Members to create a comprehensive ethical code by which we conduct ourselves and police our own behavior and that of our colleagues. The reputation of the House depends on it.