Demanding Higher Ethical Standards from our Elected Leaders

Our elected leaders have become deeply corrupted in recent years.  The rising expense of elections has turned them all into non-stop fund-raising machines.  The insatiable drive for more and more cash to win elections and/or to help others win has a deep and pervasive corrupting influence.  Money has always been a distasteful part of electoral politics, but now it has become far, far worse.  Virtually every politician arrives in office deeply indebted to various monied interests that helped him get there, be they corporations, unions, interest groups, wealthy individuals, or “bundlers”, they all owe somebody.

And there is little in the way of law or regulation to stop them from paying those debts off, whether or not the resulting laws and policies are in the interests of the American people or not.  Our legal ethical framework for elected officials is largely an honor system.  It largely assumes that our elected leaders will be men and women of high moral character who will resist corruption.

I don’t think we can afford to take that position any longer.  This last presidential campaign illustrates the point dramatically.

In Donald J. Trump, the Republicans nominated a man with a long and disturbing history of unethical business practices, a man who had repeatedly and credibly been accused of fraud and unethical practices by a wide variety of former business competitors, associates and investors.  Trump University being a dramatic example.  Even in the most favorable possible interpretation, he was clearly a man with few to no ethical standards who placed his own financial well-being above all else.

And in Hillary Clinton, the Democrats had nominated a woman who was also haunted by a series of ethical scandals throughout the years that never quite rose to the level of crimes, but still left a bad taste in the mouth and exposed her to credible allegations of conflicts of interest and using her office to gain both personal wealth and power.  The Clinton Foundation being a dramatic example.  Even in the most favorable possible interpretation she was clearly a woman with questionable ethical standards who placed her own quest for power above all else.

Sadly, it is fair to say neither party nominated someone for President that anyone who cares about ethics in their elected leaders could enthusiastically support.

During the election and since the election Donald Trump has been an ethical nightmare.  He has appointed close relatives without any qualifications at all to important roles in the White House.  He has refused to release his tax returns, as is traditional, so that independent eyes can see what his potential conflicts of interest are.  He has used his platform to promote his own business interests.  He and his family have defied tradition and the advice of ethics lawyers by not placing his business interests in a blind trust.  He reportedly still regularly communicates with and receives briefings from the sons that run his business empire.

Clearly Donald Trump is not a man of high moral character who can be trusted to act ethically.  Both his past in business and his current activities scream that message to anyone who cares to listen.  But the fact is that there really are no laws that bind the President ethically, just tradition and misplaced trust.  He can largely act as he pleases ethically, and only the voters and Congress can hold him accountable.

And the problem is not just with the Presidency.   Congress also suffers from a lack of strong ethical laws and regulations.  For good reason, Congress is not subject to oversight from anyone in the executive branch, and only limited oversight from the judiciary.  They largely govern themselves and make up their own ethical rules.  And those ethical rules are exceedingly loose and enforced only sporadically.

That stands in stark contrast to the ethical regulations binding career employees of our government, which are tight and binding, and enforced strongly by independent inspectors general in every agency.  Regulations that set out in no uncertain terms such things as how expensive a lunch someone can take a government employee out for, whether they can accept travel expenses to speak at an event, where they can work after they retire, what contact they can have with their former agency after they retire, and so on.  These regulations either don’t exist for Congress, or are much weaker and lacking in enforcement.

Ironically, we have stronger ethical standards for career officials who generally have far less power and fewer conflicts of interest than we do for our elected officials who have both more power and more conflicts of interest.

That needs to change.

We need new and binding ethical regulations for all of our federally elected officials.  Regulations that tightly control the gifts they can receive.  Regulations that more tightly control how much they can accept in travel and speaking fees and from whom they can accept them.  Regulations that more tightly control the revolving door between elected office and lobbying groups, and the contact former elected officials can have with current ones.  Regulations that spell out what contacts they can have with political contributors.  Regulations that call for a much higher ethical standard than is currently the case.

We also need an ironclad requirement that all elected officials put their business interests into a blind trust run by an independent executive for the duration of their terms in office.

And we need a requirement that all candidates for federal elected office release their tax returns for the previous ten years so that the public can see where potential conflicts of interest are.

Of course, no regulations will mean anything if they are not enforced.  We also need to establish an independent (meaning not part of or responsible to either the executive or congressional branch, with a guaranteed budget) ethical watchdog agency, an inspector general with responsibility for, and limited authority over, all elected officials.  this inspector general would need to be strictly bipartisan (nonpartisan would probably be too much to hope for) and led by respected individuals from all walks of life with impeccable records of integrity.  It would need to be empowered to investigate, recommend and perhaps even enforce sanctions against all federally elected officials when ethical standards are violated, and would be required to make all reports from its investigations public.

It would be nice to continue to live in a fantasy world where we blindly trust our elected leaders and assume they are all men and women of high moral standards and above the temptations that the rest of us must deal with.  But that is a fantasy we can no longer afford.

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