Searching for the Beneficiaries of Government Ethics Laws. (in Review)

By Samples, John | Regulation, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Searching for the Beneficiaries of Government Ethics Laws. (in Review)


Samples, John, Regulation


SCANDAL PROOF: Do Ethics Laws Make Government Ethical?

by G. Calvin Mackenzie with Michael Hafken 196 pp., Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Press, 2002.

When proposing the legislation that would later become the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, President Jimmy Carter said the measure would assure the American people that "their government is devoted exclusively to the public interest" by creating "farreaching safeguards against conflicts of interest and abuse of the public trust by government officials." Whether that claim proved right is the subject of Scandal Proof by G. Calvin Mackenzie. The book examines the 1978 law and previous regulations governing the conduct of executive branch officials, and concludes that federal ethics policies have failed to realize their stated aspirations. In recounting that failure, the author adumbrates a different, more interesting story about federal ethics policies.

The book's main story about ethics regulation fits well into the genre called "public interest theory of regulation." The genre assumes that government regulation aims at solving public problems caused by market or political failures, thereby maximizing some larger public value like the general welfare. True to public interest theory, Mackenzie claims that, in passing the 1978 law, "we undertook new ethics policies to raise the level of public integrity in government and to enhance public faith and confidence in that integrity."

Mackenzie's story about the public interest and ethics policies has several parts. The initial chapters provide a general overview of politics and corruption prior to 1961 when President John F. Kennedy initiated the modern era of ethics regulation of federal officials. The middle two chapters examine the growth and content of federal ethics regulation over the past four decades. (To Mackenzie's credit, those chapters are not nearly as boring as they sound). The rest of the book assesses the costs and benefits of the policies and sets out lessons learned, including a call for reform.

Data Mackenzie does not offer much data to assess the consequences of ethics policies. Ethics watchdogs keep thousands of financial disclosure forms on file but they throw them out after six years, which protects the privacy of individuals but denies the author and other researchers time-series data. Instead, Mackenzie measures the integrity of public officials by counting indictments and convictions by the Department of Justice. Such legal actions have increased, but the author believes the increase reflects a change in reporting requirements rather than additional corruption.

Of course, there are other measures of public trust in government. The famous time-series data collected biennially by the National Election Studies group at the University of Michigan provide a long and consistent measure of public confidence in the federal government. Mackenzie evokes but does not much exploit the Michigan data, which is a shame because the public trust measure varies -- it mostly goes down with the notable exceptions of Reagan's first term and Clinton's second.

Mackenzie has data about policy inputs in ethics regulation (for example, the number of forms filed and so on). Did they affect public trust? A multivariable regression might have yielded some insights here.

One criticism that can definitely be leveled against Scandal Proof is that Mackenzie should be more careful about asserting causality. Closer attention to the public trust series might have dissuaded him from baldly asserting that ethics policies have led to a steady decline in public trust in government. Indeed, public trust actually rose from 1980 to 1984 in the wake of passage of the 1978 law.

Mackenzie also asserts that the era of increased ethics regulation has seen a steady decline in voter turnout among adults. Yet, as Samuel Popkin and Michael MacDonald demonstrated in their 2002 American Political Science Review article "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter," the turnout of eligible voters (the voting-age population less those not eligible to vote) has remained flat following a steep decline between 1972 and 1974. …

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