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Who Cares About Ethics?

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This past Sunday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by one of their editors, Hilary Krieger, asking whether "a little corruption should matter to voters." She reported that D.C. incumbent mayoral candidate Vincent Gray has won her over, despite his ethical and campaign finance challenges. And she goes on to make the case that we may have tipped too far toward concern about ethical standards for public officials at the expense of good stewardship and the ability to "getting results in a fractious system."

It is dismaying to see such a high-profile defense of low standards of ethical behavior for public officials. Those of us who have worked on ethics in politics know all too well that the public can often be inattentive or agnostic when confronted with stories about the ethical misbehaviors of their elected officials. The most logical explanation for this reaction is the low expectations that most Americans already have for their public (and especially, elected) officials -- a streak that is as American as apple pie.

After all, in some states -- think Louisiana -- ethical challenges are part and parcel of the political landscape. Former Louisiana Governor Earl Long, when asked by a young state legislator whether he thought ideals had any place in politics, Long replied, "Hell yes. I think you should use ideals or any other damn thing you can get your hands on." Or just think of Illinois whose last few Governors have gone to jail. Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) remained quite popular in his congressional district while operating for years under "Chicago rules." When finally dethroned after being convicted of a felony for mail fraud, his successor lasted only two years in office, and was dethroned by Rod Blogojevich -- who did indeed end up in the "big house."

Ethical challenges are often associated with politicians who come up through "machine politics." Machine politics are the ultimate transactional politics -- rewards for loyalty, punishment for venturing off the reservation. Politicians can also gain public sympathy when they are seen as the victim of over-aggressive prosecutors -- think D.C.'s Marion Barry - and/or exhibit personal moral failings though not necessarily motivated by personal enrichment (e.g., former President Bill Clinton). It also helps to just be gosh-darn likable or come across as "real" -- a rare characteristic in U.S. politicians.

But Krieger goes a bridge too far when she argues that some "unfair and corrupt practices -- such as favoring certain groups and intimidating dissenters -- are precisely the ones that can build a base of loyal followers and that can be necessary for getting results in a fractious system." She quoted the Brookings Institution's Jonathan Rauch saying, "When you take away the tools that lend themselves to corruption, you also take away the tools that make it possible to govern." He described traditional machine politics as "ugly, unfair, corrupt and arguably sometimes necessary."

But taking the "good government" crowd to task for too much focus and concern about ethics in government is the cynics' way out and just too easy.

Sure, maybe 50 or 75 years ago it was not unusual for Members of Congress to be handed brown paper sacks full of cash, but that system is no longer tolerated. And, it was a system that left many Americans out of the governing equation whether it was New York's Tammany Hall or the Chicago machine.

Good government standards are at the heart of what differentiates the United States (and many other Western democracies) from the Banana Republics that may have tomes of well-written laws sitting on the shelf, but which function based on the "dash", the "the kickback", the "payola," or the "gravy." Anyone who has lived in a country where a bribe is expected for the most basic parts of daily life -- getting your electricity turned on, a building permit, a driver's license -- knows that the American expectation of bribery-free, intimidation-free interactions with government officials is not only one of our nation's most attractive qualities, but one of our greatest strengths.

It is easy to concede that there is no such thing as a corruption-free nation. We are indeed governed by flawed human beings. But the American ideal of democracy demands that our efforts toward a more perfect union include reasonable, robust and well-enforced ethical standards and expectations for those we give the power to make governing decisions over our lives.