Political Ads on Ethics May not Be a Bad Sign (Roll Call)

Meredith McGehee
Oct 19, 2010
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Too many times, the political operatives, pundits and politicians in Washington, D.C., dismiss questions about ethics as “inside baseball” and claim that nobody outside the Beltway cares. This ethics-arrow-in-quiver development is a counterargument to that jaded viewpoint.

The following opinion piece was published in Roll Call on October 19, 2010.

“An election is a moral horror, as bad as battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned.” — George Bernard Shaw

These few weeks right before the elections are often labeled the “silly season” — a time when desperation sets in, competition becomes even more cutthroat and accusations of calumny and perfidy fly with abandon.

Every campaign has in its toolkit the usual implements including, for better or worse, attack ads replete with allegations of ethics violations. It is now commonplace for opponents to throw around accusations of ethical misdeeds. And these allegations can gain political traction rather easily, especially during the silly season.

Current political thinking generally laments this development, arguing that it cheapens the process and puts all politicians in a bad light. But consider for a moment that the use of alleged ethics breaches as “just another campaign tactic” should be seen as a good development. Why?

One reason is that if a politician is concerned about being accused of an ethics violation, he (or she) will do a better job at policing himself. He will not want to give his opponent ammunition that can be used against him. Another reason is that the use of allegations of ethics violations are a demonstration that politicians think the public cares about these issues.

Believe it or not, that is a step forward.

Too many times, the political operatives, pundits and politicians in Washington,D.C., dismiss questions about ethics as “inside baseball” and claim that nobody outside the Beltway cares. This ethics-arrow-in-quiver development is a counterargument to that jaded viewpoint.

Candidates are showing an increasing concern that ethics issues are indeed salient to American voters who believe it is important to demand high ethical standards from our elected leaders. The American people agree with Founding Father John Adams, who wrote that because power corrupts, “society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

But let’s not overstate the case. Probably the most powerful influence in enhancing politicians’ compliance with the ethics rules is not really the voting booth.

Just like tax law, good compliance is achieved by strong, clear rules combined with effective enforcement. The Office of Congressional Ethics, even without access to subpoena power, has injected some life into the moribund ethics process. As a result of removing the foxes from the henhouse door and turning over some gate-keeping responsibilities to the OCE, strides have been made to restore credibility to the oxymoronic House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

The ethics committee has actually pressed forward with some investigations and because of the rules in place has begun to release its findings.

Most incumbents are hypersensitive to even the whisper of an inquiry into an ethics question or a scandalous story. They know that just the fact that questions are being asked can be tantamount to being found guilty in the court of public opinion.

We can only hope that, as the campaign debates go from the high-minded ideological discussions of policy to the gutter-sniping about whores and witches, the next group of elected leaders will come to Washington knowing that we Americans really are paying attention — and so are the folks that crank out attack ads. We expect our officeholders to at least try to uphold high ethical standards and to strive for the moral authority and character our country needs in these challenging times.

To do away with the OCE, as some Members have proposed, and return to the darkest of a dormant ethics committee that rouses only to sweep things under the rug would be a grave disservice to our democracy and to Congress as an institution.

If someone had been watching, if the committee had not gone through such long stages of dormancy, if there had been some transparency and accountability in the ethics process, if the threat of potential repercussions were tangible, then the public’s opinion of the legislative branch might not be so pathetically low. And some Members whose names will be forever tainted by ethics scandals might have found a different, more positive legacy.

Meredith McGehee is the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.

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