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posted: 8/1/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial voice and the question of judgments

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A common refrain from people who disagree with a Daily Herald editorial factors down to something like, "Who died and made the Daily Herald the judge?"

There is a simple answer to that question. No one did. And no one has to. We are a community citizen, and like many responsible community citizens, especially those whose daily work brings them in contact with the most controversial issues of the day and with the details of the public's business, we avail ourselves of our right to reflect as an institution on what we see and encounter. We add our voice to the voices of hundreds of other institutions and tens of thousands of other citizens, we engage and welcome debate from those who disagree and, withal, democracy ensues.

Yet, the question periodically emerges nonetheless and it became a bit of a factor in the debate following our story last weekend and our Sunday editorial on the ethical questions surrounding a trip taken by U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam at the expense of, at best, a private university in Taiwan or, at worst, if investigators' suspicions bear out, the Taiwan government. To us, various features of this trip raise serious ethical doubts, doubts sufficient that they should have raised second thoughts in someone of Roskam's reputation and stature.

The response by some of the Wheaton Republican's defenders? The aforementioned "who made the Daily Herald the arbiter of ethical standards of Congress?"

Of course, I repeat, no one did. But, like everyone, we have opinions on ethical questions. This particular one is complicated by the fact that the members of the U.S. House also have such opinions, and they embody theirs in an Ethics Committee that pre-approves all privately funded congressional travel. Considering that, if the Ethics Committee approves a trip, the trip must be ethical, right?

Hmmm. To us, that is an incomplete standard. The image is a bit extreme, but imagine a committee of foxes that assigns itself the job of determining when raiding the henhouse is justified. Its rulings surely would not be endorsed 100 percent of the time by every observer, other than those who are foxes. There is room, in other words, for differences of opinion and closer scrutiny.

That is what we called for in our reflections on the Roskam trip, and it may well play into any reflections we decide to offer following our story in today's edition examining privately funded travel by other members of suburban Illinois' congressional delegation -- including a head-turning 23 trips in six years by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat. The mere self-assessment by Congressmen that their colleagues' travel meets a certain ethical standard is not in and of itself the final word on that standard.

"Judge not, lest ye be judged," the Gospel writer cautions, and we acknowledge and appreciate the admonition. Ethical standards can be something of a moving target, and respectable people understandably can take personal offense when their own standards are questioned. But the actions of people in government (not necessarily the people themselves) and the standards that such people set for themselves must surely be subject to the reflecton and evaluation of the governed.

No one has to die and bequeath the mantle of ethical authority to any other. In a democracy, in fact, we all wear a piece of that garment. From time to time, especially as it relates to government leaders, we also all need to talk about the fabric from which it is woven.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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