Why Congress is So Bad at Ethics
Just one week after House Republicans tried to gut one of Congress’s only real independent watchdogs on ethics, it’s now the Senate Republicans who want to sidestep one of their established ethical checkpoints. Senate confirmation hearings are set to begin soon on high-profile positions in the Trump cabinet, but many nominees haven’t submitted tax returns and other disclosure forms necessary to do a thorough background check.
After an election that was in part decided on potential conflicts of interest and perceptions of corruption, you would think member of Congress would try to be on their best behavior, even if only momentarily. After all, most politicians have enough sense of self-preservation to vote against pay raises for themselves, return donations from tainted sources, and otherwise try to at least appear virtuous in the eyes of voters. Why do members of both parties have such a blind spot when it comes to the uniquely unpopular act of gutting and/or ignoring ethics?
After studying this issue for years, here’s what I’ve observed:
Ethics puts politicians at a relative disadvantage to potential challengers. Ethics investigations that have any tangible effect on elections are rare, but it’s not hard to see why politicians hate them. They generate bad headlines—and as Hillary Clinton learned—the interpretation of those headlines can often be completely out-of-whack with the severity of the allegations. Just as important, the challenger who wants your seat has no such investigatory body overlooking his or her every move. Most politicians will do anything to get reelected, and for many, the benefit of a more transparent and ethical government is outweighed by the fact that a strong ethics regime gives their enemies potential leverage against them.
Nobody likes to be stereotyped as unethical. If I were a Congressman, I’d want a very strong ethics regime, not because I’m some goody-goody, but because I’d be deathly afraid of an ethics scandal ending my career or getting throw in federal prison. Vague, fuzzy, and unenforced rules would make it all the more likely I fall to temptation. But many politicians see it the opposite: the tough rules are there to generate controversy and land them in trouble. They fear a “wild good chase” and being persecuted for the routine business of politics. For these kinds of politicians, a strong ethics regime presupposes there is foul play afoot. It’s why older members tend to be much more skeptical of ethics than newer members: a movement to bolster ethics feels to them like an attack on their integrity. That kind of defensiveness from the most senior members kills almost every attempt at ethics reform, even when such reform may be desperately needed.
Conflicts of interest are like alcohol. This is the metaphor I keep coming back to when trying to explain how even relatively upstanding politicians can be so brazen and ham-handed on ethics. If you draw a fine line and never take on anything even constituting the appearance of a conflict of interest, odds are you’ll do fine. But once you say X investment or Y relationship doesn’t affect your judgment, you’ve lowered your own bar for ethical behavior. It’s no wonder why Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were so obtuse on their own ethics—they’ve been at them for some long, they thought they had it figured out. Having too many conflicts of interest is just like having too many drinks—at some point, you lose the ability to properly self-evaluate.
In the end, most politicians would much rather “self-regulate” than allow an independent party to be the arbiter of what does or does not break the rules. It’s little different than the coalmine that wants to “self-regulate” on safety or the big bank that wants to “self-regulate” on the systemic riskiness of their holdings. And as we just saw, there’s nothing quite like a nice public uproar to remind our elected officials that a little outside enforcement is in everyone’s best interest.