Scandal Proof: Do Ethics Laws Make Government Ethical?

Article excerpt

Book Review

Scandal Proof: Do Ethics Laws Make Government Ethical?

G. Calvin Mackenzie

2002, the Brookings Institute, Washington, DC.

Calvin Mackenzie's book, Scandal Proof: Do Ethics Laws Make Government Ethical?, is a concise, yet comprehensive, retrospective analysis of the development of ethical policy in the American federal government from the time of the American Revolution to present day. The author focuses his examination on ethical legislation that has limited executive branch employees, particularly appointed administrators, in the performance of their duties. He describes the impetus for restrictive ethics regulation at the federal level as the perception of scandalous behavior in public office, which brings about new legislation with every newly elected presidential administration.

Mackenzie says an expanding cycle of legislative control, in an effort to deter corruption, has created an illusion of regulation by failing to address the actual behaviors that comprise corruption in government. Instead, a bureaucracy of perpetuating enforcement has created an unending appointment process that burdens every presidential administration with a culture of continuous investigation. Added to this equation, is the changing standard of acceptable behavior in government office and in society as a whole. Fueled by multiple policy windows that have altered the methods of influencing policy, ethics regulation has become more encompassing. And, the nature of corruption has adapted to these expanding standards. Mackenzie says population growth accompanied by an increase in government services, and the financial liability that goes with them, have complicated the situation to a point of inefficacy.

The author presents two pivotal moments in time as the main springs to the current situation that surrounds ethical regulation in government. The first is the growth of government that began with President Franklin's 1930's New Deal ' followed by the expansion of the American role in the world after the second World War. New social welfare and world stewardship roles were assumed to have stimulated growth in government not previously experienced. Mackenzie accentuates this point by declaring, "Big government arrived in mid-century, and has never left" (p. 5).

The second is President John Kennedy's 1961 initiative for new ethics legislation based on his Ethics and Conflict of Interest in Government advisory panel's denunciation of the "inconsistent, overlapping, and, in some cases, contradictory" (p. 22) ethics regulations existing at that time. Congress responded with new enforcement legislation. Since then, each succeeding presidential administration has added to the ethical requirements for public service in the federal government through a stringent reliance on enforcement regulations. Ironically, a reciprocating cycle of presidential emphasis on ethics to appease public sentiment has limited the flexibility of the president.

The momentum begun by President Kennedy culminated in The Ethics in Government Act of 1978. This law was aimed at restoring the confidence of the American people in government following the Watergate Scandal of the early 1970's. It established a. framework of ethics regulation that has since been continuously amended in piecemeal fashion. The author maintains that the resulting outcome is an overabundance of regulation that does little to address the misbehavior characteristic of the Watergate Scandal, but tightens the regulatory net of enforcement that invades every aspect of federal employment. The end result is a declining pool of candidates for presidential appointments and a reduction in the implementation of public mandates.

Mackenzie presents a justifiable argument in support of his premise that the excessive ethical regulation of federal employees is smothering government efficiency and effectiveness. He proposes that trust in government officials by the American people has declined despite the immense infusion of ethics regulation. …