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. (4)
Since candidates for the U.S. Senate run state-wide, rather than in districts that comprise only part of a state as do Congressional candidates (except in states which, because of their smaller populations, have only one Congressional District), it is not surprising that Senate campaigns were even more expensive:
* In a heated race in Pennsylvania, incumbent Rick Santorum, who was defeated, spent $25,339,209 while challenger Robert P. Casey, who was successful, spent $17,464,678;
* In Connecticut, Edward M. Lamont, who defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman in the primary but lost to him in the general election when Lieberman ran as an independent, spent $20,318,012 while Lieberman spent $16,893,416;
* In a hotly-contested race for an open seat in Tennessee, Robert P. Corker, Jr., who won the race, spent $18,565,935, while his opponent, Harold E. Ford, Jr., spent $15,557,209;
* In a bitterly-contested race in Virginia, incumbent George Allen, who was defeated, spent $16,071,564 while challenger James H. Webb, who was successful, spent $8,323,744;
* In Montana, one of the smallest states in terms of population but fourth largest geographically, incumbent Conrad Burns, who was defeated, spent $8,499,041, while challenger Jon Tester, who won, spent $5,395,513.
Even in states in which there were not competitive races, large amounts of money were spent. In New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who did not have strong opposition, spent $30,789,478, topping the list for net disbursements during the 2005-2006 election cycle. (5)
The magnitude of the money required for a successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate is easier to grasp if broken down per diem. Since terms in the U.S. House of Representatives are two years, candidates have 730 days in which to raise the money. If they were to work on fundraising every day (which, in practice, they do not since incumbents are expected to do at least some work for their constituents and many politicians like to spend at least some time with their families), a candidate for Congress would have to raise $10,959 a day to come up $8 million in campaign funds, $8,219 a day to raise $6 million, and $5,479 a day to raise $4 million.
Since U.S. Senate terms are for six years, candidates for the U.S. Senate have more time to raise money-2190 days compared to 730 days for Congressional candidates--but, because they run state-wide, need even more money if they are to put together effective campaigns. Senate candidates must raise $13,699 a day to accumulate $30 million in campaign funds, $9,123 to accumulate $20 million, and $4,566 to accumulate $10 million.
Where Do Candidates Get All This Money?
The massive amounts of money necessary for effective campaigns come from a variety of sources. Individual contributions, political action committee (PAC) contributions and contributions by party organizations account for much of it. In the 2003-2004 election cycle, Congressional candidates, on average, received 35 percent of their funding from PACs while individual contributions accounted for 56 percent. (6)
Candidates with substantial personal wealth in some cases put a good deal of their own money into their campaigns. For example, Lamont contributed in excess of $14 million to his ultimately unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in Connecticut. (7)
There are no limits as to how much an individual may contribute to her or his own campaign. There are, however, limits specified by federal law as to how much other individuals (including spouses), PACs and party organizations may contribute to campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives (as well as to campaigns for President). Current limits allow individuals other than the candidate to contribute up to $2,300 per election to each candidate while multi-candidate PACs may contribute up to $5,000 per election to each candidate. (8)
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA-also known as the McCain-Feingold Act after its two chief sponsors) does provide for some exceptions. One such exception, which has become known as the "millionaire's amendment," allows donors to give up to three times the normal amount to the campaign of a candidate running against a wealthy candidate contributing substantial amounts of her or his own money into his or her own campaign. (9) Since, as noted, Lamont pumped more than $14 million of his own money into his 2006 U.S. Senate campaign in Connecticut, Lieberman, who was defeated by Lamont in the primary but ran as an independent in the general election and won, was allowed to accept three times the normal amount from his donors to help offset Lamont's funding advantage derived from his personal wealth. (10)
Where Does All This Money Go?
A detailed analysis of cash flow during the 2003-2004 election cycle commissioned by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan Washington-based organization, determined that more than half the money spent by presidential candidates, national party committees, general election candidates for Congress, and independent political groups (often referred to as "527s") went to campaign consultants. A group of approximately 600 professional consultants were paid a combined total of more than $1.85 billion, with nearly two-thirds of this amount going to media consultants. (11)
Media consultants, to be sure, don't keep all of that money …
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Publication information: Article title: The Erosion of Ethical Standards in Government: Is What It Takes to Get Elected the Root of the Problem?. Contributors: Lee, Daniel E. - Author. Journal title: Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table. Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: Not available. © 2008 Forum on Public Policy. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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