The Impact of Ethics Laws on Legislative Recruitment and the Occupational Composition of State Legislatures

By Rosenson, Beth A. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Ethics Laws on Legislative Recruitment and the Occupational Composition of State Legislatures


Rosenson, Beth A., Political Research Quarterly


Over the past half-century, ethics laws have proliferated at the federal, state, and local levels, yet their effects are not well understood. Critics of ethics laws have charged that financial disclosure requirements and restrictions on outside income deter individuals from pursuing public service. However, empirical testing of this claim has been lacking. This study examines the impact of substantive ethics restrictions and disclosure laws on state legislative recruitment in the 1990s and on the changing occupational composition of state legislatures between 1976 and 1995. Ethics laws are found to have several effects on the decision to run and on the occupations represented. I suggest that these effects are not necessarily all negative.

Concern about how to prevent legislators' private financial interests from unduly influencing their official decisionmaking is not new in American politics. Since Watergate, however, the project of legislating constraints on lawmakers' activities has accelerated (Anechiarico and Jacobs 1996; Mackenzie 2002). Policy makers have enacted a wide range of laws referred to, both in common parlance and in the statutes themselves, as ethics laws or conflict of interest laws. These laws address behavior that falls outside the purview of bribery law because it does not involve a clear-cut quid pro quo. However, the activities that the laws regulate are still perceived as involving improper influence or its appearance.1 For example, ethics laws restrict the gifts and honoraria that lawmakers can receive from lobbyists; they limit their contracts with state entities and their representation of clients before state agencies; they mandate disclosure of economic interests; and in some cases, they authorize independent commissions to oversee legislators' behavior. In contrast to bribery laws, ethics regulations are typically part of the civil statutes rather than the criminal statutes, and monetary fines or other non-jail sanctions are the main punishment for their violation (National Conference of State Legislatures 2005).

In the states, ethics regulation has been connected to the movement to institutionalize, modernize, and otherwise improve state legislatures (Brace and Ward 1999; Bowman and Kearney 1986; Hedge 1998). The majority of states have strengthened their ethics statutes in the past three decades, typically in an attempt to repair the tarnished image of political institutions. For example, in the 1990s, FBI sting operations that exposed lawmakers in Kentucky and other states taking bribes led to the enactment of new ethics laws. In Maryland, recent media revelations about the influence of a cable TV lobbyist on legislators have led to calls for greater financial disclosure. In New York, after the 2003 bribery conviction of a state assemblywoman and additional revelations about contractor influence over lawmakers, the governor and watchdog groups called for a ban on all gifts and junkets and the creation of an independent ethics commission to oversee legislators.2

Ethics laws are typically a response to scandal, enacted with the immediate goal of stemming public or media outcry, and this can mean that they are hastily designed (Rosenthal 1996). Yet those who advocate and pass ethics laws also argue that the laws will have a positive impact, improving the quality of representation and enhancing public trust (Carroll and Roberts 1988; Fain 2002; Herrick 2003; Thompson 1995; Weber 1999; Zimmerman 1994).3 Ethics laws may also affect the decision to pursue public service. Individuals deciding whether or not to run for office are strategic actors. They calculate the likelihood of winning and the expected benefits and costs of serving (Brace 1984; Copeland 1989; Jacobson and Kernell 1981; Moncrief, Squire andjewell 2001; Moncrief, Niemi, and Powell 2004; Rohde 1979; Schlesinger 1966; Squire 1989, 1992b). Scholars and lawmakers sometimes assert that ethics laws-in particular, financial disclosure requirements and restrictions on outside income-add to the costs of public service. …

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