The Erosion of Ethical Standards in Government: Is What It Takes to Get Elected the Root of the Problem?

By Lee, Daniel E. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Erosion of Ethical Standards in Government: Is What It Takes to Get Elected the Root of the Problem?


Lee, Daniel E., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


In the United States in the last few years, newspapers have been full of stories about ethical lapses by public officials. It is commonplace to hear people speak with dismay about the erosion of ethical standards in government.

To be sure, misconduct by public officials is not anything new. The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) became, as one commentator put it, "a carnival of corruption" that some referred to as the "Era of Good Stealings" (a word play on the "Era of Good Feelings," the label given to the presidency of James Monroe, who served from 1817-1825 during a time when there was very little partisan bickering). (1) A half century after the "Era of Good Stealings," Charles R. Forbes, a one-time army deserter appointed by President Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) to head up the newly-formed Veterans Bureau got caught with his hand in the till, an unsavory episode followed by the Teapot Dome scandal, in which Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, after receiving a sizeable bribe, let the oilmen who bribed him exploit valuable naval oil reserves. (2)

While reports of wrongdoing by public officials are widespread, both historically and in contemporary times, it should also be noted that there are individuals with high ethical standards who have chosen lives of public service. An example is provided by Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, who, prior to serving in Congress, was a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State but resigned as a matter of principle when, in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," President Richard M. Nixon fired Archibald Cox, who had been appointed special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal--a firing which led to the forced resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Leach, a person of absolute integrity, has never groveled for tainted money or run an attack ad disparaging an opponent.

That having been said, however, few would disagree with the observation that ethical standards in government today are not what they might be. Space does not allow discussing ethical lapses on all levels of government in all governments world-wide. (Would that ethical lapses in government were sufficiently limited in number and scope to discuss in their entirety in thirty pages or less!) Accordingly, this discussion will be limited to issues related to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The thesis to be developed here can be stated quite succinctly: the distorting nature of what it takes to get elected results in many candidates being ethically compromised by the time they are elected, which means that it is not surprising that once they assume office, they are inclined to do things that are unethical.

Massive Campaign Expenditures

An acquaintance with a passion for politics is fond of saying, "Money is the mother's milk of politics." Set against that aphorism is the aphorism that states, "Money is the root of all evil." (3) When it comes to contemporary American politics, both statements are probably correct.

Successful campaigns for Congress today are exceedingly expensive. While the cost of a successful campaign varies somewhat from district to district because of regional differences such as the cost of television advertising, there is no such thing as an inexpensive campaign. In the 2005-2006 election cycle, Vernon Buchanan spent $8,112,752 in the 13th Congressional District in Florida (as of 31 December 2006). In the 26th Congressional District in New York, Thomas M. Reynolds spent $5,275,474. In the 15th Congressional District in Illinois, Deborah Pryce spent $4,696,772 while in the 8th Congressional District in Illinois, Melissa Bean spent $4,298,167. Even in less expensive contested races, substantial amounts were spent. In the 1st Congressional District in Iowa, which was an open seat, Bruce Braley, who won, spent $2,235,245 while Mike Whalen, the candidate he defeated, spent $2,385, 532. …

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