Good public policy rests on a foundation of truth and honesty. Without it the very fabric of our system of government is as frail and brittle as old burlap. No policy, regardless of its cost or importance, can be effectively created and implemented without people and organizations that are willing to provide truthful and honest information.
With that in mind, several committees of the Oregon House of Representatives have taken steps to prevent those who testify before legislative committees from providing misleading and false statements. A simple oath was proposed that would require individuals who testify before legislative committees to tell the truth. Failure to do so would expose those individuals who play fast and loose with the truth to the penalties of perjury, much like a witness testifying in court.
Some legislators, however, feel that this rule is unduly burdensome. This strikes me as absurd.
There are many reasons why administering an oath is a good rule. First and foremost, the Legislature must allocate billions of dollars of taxpayer money to an assortment of programs and departments. Taxpayer money is a precious and scarce resource. The people of the state of Oregon have entrusted this resource to the Legislature with the understanding that it will be used to benefit the greater good. It is crucial that those who testify before legislative committees tell the truth about the information they are presenting. These testimonies, after all, have great influence on what becomes policy in the state.
Requiring those who appear before legislative committees to tell the truth is a positive step in bolstering the credibility of our government. Citizens often question the integrity of elected officials and state agencies. Regardless of the source of this cynicism, public belief in government has seriously eroded. The media bombards us daily with stories and images of self-serving politicians and interest groups, shady deals, and agency representatives selling bad science. We as elected officials have a responsibility to not only reestablish trust between elected officials and the citizenry, but to maintain it.
A simple rule requiring those who testify before a committee to affirm that they will tell the truth would be one small step to reassure the electorate that truthfulness and honesty are of paramount importance to their elected officials.
A rule requiring truthfulness emphasizes the importance of honesty in the minds of those testifying before a committee. One cannot understate the importance of the information that comes before a committee. Legislators rely on those with expertise to provide crucial data and testimony concerning the issues before a legislative committee. An oath serves to re-emphasize the importance of an individual or group's testimony. The legislative process is a serious process and must be respected. The decisions of 30 senators and 60 representatives have great ramifications in the lives of millions of Oregonians. False and misleading information corrupts the process and can hurt people. We need only to look to the recent debate over river water usage in the Klamath Falls area for evidence of the cost that incorrect information can have on people's lives.
One consequence of swearing to tell the truth is that those testifying, especially ordinary citizens, can rest assured that their testimony and information is important and being considered. An oath is like a contract. In exchange for promising to tell the truth, the Legislature agrees to study and reflect upon the opinions of the person or group testifying. This re-emphasizes that a citizen's voice is heard and not drowned out by the roar of special interest groups.
Finally, the oath requirement has legal ramifications. Once a bill becomes a law there are often questions about what the law means and the intent of the Legislature in creating the law. Judges who have to interpret laws rely on the legislative history of a measure to determine what it means. This legislative history comes from the testimony and information provided during committee hearings and the debate on a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives or Senate. If the information given in committee is false it can have negative consequences when judges are called upon to determine the meaning of a bill.
It is odd that there are those in the Legislature who feel that an oath to tell the truth is inappropriate. Misleading and false statements have, on rare occasions, been given by groups testifying before a legislative committee. The people of the state of Oregon have a right to know that their decision makers in Salem are utilizing truthful information in doing the business of the people. Anything less would be a grave injustice.
Bob Jenson is representative of House District 58.