Santa Clara University

After words

There really is an ethics crisis in government

By Kirk O. Hanson
Kirk O. Hanson
Kirk O. Hanson is University Professor and Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Photo: Charles Barry

During the past two years, our local, state, and national governments and our global institutions have been assaulted by a degree of raw self-interest unknown in recent times.

Here are a few examples.

• The city of San Jose has been immersed in a two-year debate over the influence of lobbyists on city government and city contracting. Contracts have been rescinded and the mayor has been censured.

• In Tennessee, five current and former lawmakers have been charged in an FBI bribery sting and the state legislature has now banned campaign contributions by lobbyists.

• In Washington, the Abramoff scandal has preoccupied the attention of Congress, and has raised troubling questions about the influence of “K Street” (where many Washington lobbyists have their offices) on government decisions of all types. A San Diego congressman has set a new record for crass self-dealing by taking more than $2 million from defense contractors and will now go to jail.

• On the global level, the “oil for food” scandal engulfed the United Nations bureaucracy as several officials were accused of taking bribes from the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in exchange for helping it avoid U.N. sanctions.

There is nothing new, of course, about individuals and institutions seeking to influence government decisions to serve their private interests. Controlling conflicts of interest and self-dealing has been on the agenda of every government since the ancient Greeks. Nonetheless, I believe we are now seeing something new and troubling. The corruption has spread to every level and institution of government and seems increasingly resistant to change.

Why has this happened? First, efforts to compromise the integrity of government are much more aggressive because the stakes are so much higher. The election of a friendly city council member or state legislator, or even the insertion of a short sentence into a law, can now mean millions of dollars to a special interest group. Second, an increasing number of us believe that governments will inevitably be captured by one special interest or another. This has led many to tolerate systems by which government benefits are increasingly “sold” to the highest bidder.

Among the critical concerns today are growing conflicts of interest as legislations and government officials move in and out of lobbying roles, the exploding problem of earmarks by which more government funds are appropriated for private projects (sometimes with little public notice), and the continuing problem of campaign financing.

The way we raise money for congressional and presidential campaigns has become ever more difficult to defend. Contributors to campaigns expect special “access” to the legislator—and typically get it. In addition, the process of collecting these limited contributions and then “bundling” them for presentation to candidates has given a small number of Democratic and Republican bundlers significant influence over who our candidates are and what they stand for. It is difficult to tell foreign officials that our system of campaign contributions can be distinguished from other forms of campaign corruption in their countries.

There are certainly reform efforts underway to deal with these troubling issues. At the Markkula Center, Senior Fellow Judy Nadler, a former mayor of the city of Santa Clara, is working on model local lobbying rules; and visiting fellow Thomas Reese, S.J., former editor of America magazine, continues his interest in the ethics of Congressional lobbying.

What is needed from you and me is a new awareness that our government is seriously threatened by these recent developments. We need a new commitment to clean up practices we have collectively tolerated. We must work to eliminate all earmarks, even those we benefit from. And, above all, we need to elect city councils, state legislators, and members of Congress who pledge to give us a government we can be proud of.