Required course on ethics for politicians?
August 7, 2010 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I would like all new elected and appointed officials -- from Congress all the way on down to appointed officials at the municipal level -- to be required to take a minimum 20 hour course on ethics and civic responsibility. How would I go about getting Congress to pass this as a new law?

I'm just an ordinary dude. I'm not a politician or a moneyed corporate executive or lobbyist. I'm a dude that's fed up with all the corruption in local, county, state, and federal politics. I don't know the numbers but I'm guessing at least 30% of our elected and appointed officials are significantly crooked -- meaning they look the other way when they're duty bound to do otherwise or they brazenly skirt the law to line their pocketbooks or campaign coffers.

I'm thinking that a simple course on ethics and the law might be a very effective way to persuade many of the crooks to act nobly. At least a few of them. Why not start with a required course for everyone? The course could review a sampling of the probes and indictments that have led to major fines or prison terms. It could review the many existing laws forbidding things like bribery and blackmail. Any maybe, in the same way that nurses and doctors and lawyers have to regularly take continuing education courses to keep their licenses, politicians would have to take a refresher course-let each year to stay in office or run for office again.

I'm just brainstorming here.

It seems like something like this might be politically tenable.

How would I go about proposing this and has it been done before? Not as punishment, but as preventative measures?
posted by pallen123 to Law & Government (27 answers total)
You probably couldn't pass a law requiring all elected officials, because generally the states get the say in what their officials are required to do. Your chances of getting this passed on the federal level are slim-to-none, because it's notoriously difficult to get Congress to pass laws that put some sort of burden on Congresspeople. You will need to get congresspeople to sponsor the bill, and someone will have to draft it (they have staff that do this, I don't believe you can have it drafted yourself and submit it to them). Another reason it will be nearly impossible to accomplish this is because it would cost a lot of money to take officials off their duties for 20 hours, you will have to pay them even though they aren't working, it costs money to administer the classes, and many government agencies are horribly understaffed right now because of hiring freezes and layoffs.
It's a good idea, but the nature of it makes it unlikely to be implemented at anything but on a small level (like in a particular town or something).
posted by ishotjr at 2:03 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bribe somebody. Donate to their PAC or election fund. Hire a lobbyist. I know this isn't the answer you're looking for but it seems more and more like this works the best.
posted by thorny at 2:09 PM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are several empirical claims here that require examination before proceeding to the question's heart. A) Is there empirical evidence that taking a required course in ethics decreases corruption? I'm not sure that there is -- if we look at a similar domain, say sexual harassment, there is some evidence for "pushback" effects in which attitudes about sexual harassment are worse than before the required training. B) You estimate 30% of officials are corrupt. How could you possibly arrive at this number? Don't be swayed by very public instances of corruption. You talk about politicians all the way down to municipal politics. Well, that's a lot of politicians. What I mean here is that the denominator in the formula # of corrupt politicians / # of total politicians is quite large, meaning that highly visible cases of corruption probably lead you to substantially overestimate the prevalence of it.

This also hinges on what your definition of corrupt is. Many people see lobbyists as ruining politics by having politicians do their "bidding" but they forget that organizations like the ACLU, the Sierra Club, and the like are also "lobby organizations." It's built around a pluralist theory of politics, in which special interest groups push for political gain because politicians can't be counted on to know or care about everyone's cause.

As for the question itself, you're proposing a mandatory program that would cost enormous amounts of money to staff and maintain (not to mention designing the curriculum and whatnot). I guarantee you that this will never happen for that reason alone -- fiscal conservatives will balk. However, I can also guarantee you that no significant group of politicians will ever initiate a program that is essentially an admission that they are not ethical.

I respect what you're saying, but it's also worth noting that people like political scientists, economists, and sociologists all study these things very carefully. I would be willing to bet that your 30% number is way off (not testable, though, since it depends on what counts as corruption) and am further willing to bet that trying to nip corruption in the bud isn't as easy as having everyone take a class on why stealing is wrong. Like you said, you're just a regular joe who probably doesn't know that people spend their whole lives studying political corruption and how to combat it.
posted by proj at 2:10 PM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think you might find that a 20-hour course on ethics isn't going to change how politicians behave at all.

Do you really expect them to go "Oh, gee! I didn't know that giving fat kickbacks to buddies and torturing foreigners is wrong! Now I have seen the error in my ways!"? Because I assure you, they already know it's 'wrong'. They already know what the consequences on other people are, and that the system will do its damnedest to protect them (including simply ignoring the law) if there's any public outcry against them: That's why Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney & co. are not behind bars.

In summary: You're barking up the wrong tree here, because (a) you've got a snowball's chance in hell at lobbying for this and getting it through and (b) even if it went through, these guys wouldn't really give a damn about 'ethics' anyway.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:12 PM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe you could pitch this to political parties as something for them to require of new officials. You could frame it as a preventive measure against future embarrassment. Plus, I'd imagine that many parties already have some kind of orientation program for new representatives.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 2:13 PM on August 7, 2010

Start local, this kind of thing going through for everyone all in one shot just isn't going to happen. If it works, then as these people move up they'll probably want to bring it with them.
posted by theichibun at 2:15 PM on August 7, 2010

Also, you might check this out, particularly the link that says "training." It appears that it's an annual requirement for a good deal of staff. Not to beat a dead horse, but you're hardly the first person to think of this.
posted by proj at 2:16 PM on August 7, 2010

Yeah I don't really know how many folks would be swayed by a course but I firmly believe it wouldn't be zero -- and I kinda doubt the pushback effects would be significant if at all (for that matter I don't put much stock in social research concerning these sorts of things, for example in the case of sexual harassment). Also, I was being somewhat disingenuous. I have a PhD in Political Science from a top university and I wrote about and researched governance and public policy for nearly 15 years. I happen to believe there would be tremendous political support for this type of course for any number of reasons. Further, to your comment @proj, very few academics truly study corruption and how to combat it per se. I am retired from academia and having spent much of my career in the ivory tower, firmly believe it has little if anything to offer in terms of addressing the problems we currently face with political corruption as a nation.
posted by pallen123 at 2:25 PM on August 7, 2010

Newly-elected congressmen and their staffs are in fact given instruction about ethics and conflicts of interest as part of their orientations, which are organized by the party leaderships to make the sure the members don't do anything that could be embarrassing. They cover everything from the intricacies of not using congressional offices or staff time for campaign work to telling members to avoid closing their doors when working alone with a staffer of the opposite sex.

One analogous example that you touched on is professional ethical education. For instance, lawyers in most states have to take an ethics course and exam as part of joining the bar association. It's good because it helps ethical would-be lawyers understand areas where they have to be scrupulous and the rules are clear (such as how to maintain financial accounts belonging to clients), but I can't see that it does anything to deter lawyers who truly want to steal from their clients.

Nevertheless, the problem with elected officials being beholden to corporate donors rather than the people isn't really a matter of eduction, no more than the problem with burglars is that they've never been told it's wrong to steal. It's a structural issue -- politicians want to stay in office and they correctly figure the easiest way is to do what they people who pay the freight want. Often those views coincide with their own political views, so it's not a hard leap.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 2:31 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another problem would be that you might have to change state constitutions to make this a requirement. At the lower levels, anyway, there are massive resources available to educate newly-elected and returning officials on their responsibilities and ethical duties (there was a three-day course for my position, for example, as well as nearly monthly continuing ed). However, if I as an elected official refuse to participate in them, I cannot be forced out of my office. I was duly elected.

They also hand me a pledge to sign that I'm not a communist. I don't have to do that either.

You'd probably also have the unintended effect of driving more people AWAY from running for part-time and unpaid office, since a lot of people can't afford 20 hours of ethics training away from their families or jobs. It's already difficult to get "everyday citizens" who don't have tons of money to make the time commitment to local government. You'd make even harder.

This does seem very disingenuous -- and naive -- for someone with a PhD in the subject.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:37 PM on August 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

This seems incredibly naive for someone with a PhD in Political Science -- if you truly have a degree from a top institution and wrote about governance for 15 years, I am aghast that you are honestly saying things like "30% of politicians are corrupt," you "doubt" the pushback effect, you seem to be unfamiliar with the fact that a "non-zero" return on your investment is not anywhere near significant enough to warrant investing in a federal-state-municipal wide training program (further, if you understand governance, you surely understand that these are funded separately, right?) Very few individuals study corruption? You can start here. I'm sure that they'd be glad to hear from you.

I'm sorry to speak to you this way, but you seem to not have a strong grasp in the ways in which policy gets enacted, at least in the United States. And you also seem to have strongly held opinions on the ways in which social science research affects policy -- I understand it can be difficult sometime to feel like your views as an academic are not being heard by policy makers. However, to say that social scientists have nothing to offer is baloney -- they are the ones doing actual empirical research rather than just doing what has political support or "seems right" (aka, the policy folks).
posted by proj at 2:44 PM on August 7, 2010 [8 favorites]

Next time there's a nice juicy scandal propose your idea to every congressperson. You may be able to catch lightning in a bottle by proposing a marketable idea at just the right moment. Before you poo-poo the idea, consider that the Enron scandal yielded the Sarbanes–Oxley Act.

It's worth noting that nearly half of the members of Congress hold law degrees. They've had ethics and legal training.
posted by 26.2 at 2:47 PM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, I was being somewhat disingenuous. I have a PhD in Political Science from a top university and I wrote about and researched governance and public policy for nearly 15 years.

No, you lied. You wrote the post and presented yourself as an ordinary guy. Then you revealed you're not. You are playing games with Askme and tarnishing its usefulness. That's not cool.
posted by nomadicink at 2:53 PM on August 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

I agree with theichibun completely. Any change of this magnitude that is going to be systemically effected all the way through the system would have to start locally.

The solution would be to find a few towns across the nation, large enough for someone to take notice and small enough for the thing to work. Between 75,000 and 250,000 in population, I'll say.

Get those towns to agree at the city council level that they want to be part of the pilot. Get the school district, chamber of commerce, and PTA boards all to agree to sign on as well.

Create an "ethics academy" that doesn't cost the city anything. Have all newly elected local officials take the training, at a quarterly session following their election. Have them make a special ethics pledge.

Get the public on board; tell them "these are the elected officials you thought you were getting all along." It becomes a campaign draw to have the "ethics certification" on one's resume; like an endorsement from the police officers' association or the Better Business Bureau. Jaded voters get educated on what ethical behavior "looks like"—instead of this messy, dirty business that they grew up expecting.

When those city council members become the mayor, then the state rep or county judge, then the state senator, then the governor or Congressional rep... they take their improved ethics with them all the way up the food chain.

Changing a culture that has been in effect for decades and has hundreds of thousands of players can't happen from the top down. It has to come from the bottom up.
posted by pineapple at 3:07 PM on August 7, 2010

  • Who writes the course? How do you deal with changing cultural norms regarding the ethical behavior of politicians? Do you use the same course for hundreds of years? Do you amend the coursework every year? If so, who's in charge of this, and how do you guarantee their impartiality and ensure what's being taught truly reflects the current culture's mentality? How would you even measure these ethical averages in the first place before you can even start writing the coursework?
  • Who teaches the course? How are they selected?
  • What happens if you fail the course? Nothing? Then is there any real purpose, besides forcing someone to sit at a desk for 20 hours?
  • What happens if they don't complete the course before their term starts? Is it a requirement for office?
  • Plus a hundred million other things…

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:33 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I was being somewhat disingenuous. I have a PhD in Political Science from a top university and I wrote about and researched governance and public policy for nearly 15 years.

For future reference, do not do this here. Other commenters, take this to MeTa if you need to.
posted by jessamyn at 3:53 PM on August 7, 2010

I have a PhD in Political Science from a top university

Then you should know full well or have the research skills to very quickly learn that Congress could not possibly require state and local officials to take any such course.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:54 PM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would expect someone of your professed caliber to know the history of goo-goo. Anyway, this isn't about you.

The Chicago approach has been independent "slates" such as the IVI-IPO, which at least in theory provides a check against the endemic corruption of the Chicago Machine. Things like this work best in non-partisan or highly single-party environments, though. In most places, the two-party system overrides any effect that such independent slates might achieve.

Also, I think you're fundamentally misguided as to how to achieve a corruption-free government. Ethics is situationally variable. Very often what seems right because you believe in an outcome becomes wrong when you don't (if they pay you for how you were going to vote anyway, who got rolled?). The longer someone is an insider the more contacts they build up and the more of a target for corruption they become. Term limits are one way that this effect can be attenuated, but they have problems of their own for other reasons and purposes. You could educate every politician in the world on ethics and the law and you'd still have the Good-Time Charlies who can nod their way through the entire course and go on to become demagogues and vote-auctioneers. After all, many of them have to smile and nod their way up the ladder for years as it is.

If you're truly interested in ethical governance, it's probably better to work with a watchdog group such as CREW. Support them, do research for them, and provide them a voice, and you'll probably be more effective at controlling the problem.
posted by dhartung at 4:50 PM on August 7, 2010

I would like all new elected and appointed officials -- from Congress all the way on down to appointed officials at the municipal level -- to be required to take a minimum 20 hour course on ethics and civic responsibility. How would I go about getting Congress to pass this as a new law?

Best bet is probably to bribe a congressman to introduce it as legislation.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:02 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here in Illinois all employees of the state are required to undergo ethics training - including elected officials like our soon be jail-bound former governor Blago (note: still waiting for verdict....ah Chicago, shine on you crazy crazy piece of coal), and 20 hours of training simply isn't enough to change the culture of large institutions like state or federal governments.

So to answer Civil_Disobedient, a committee wrote the course, its provided online, failure forces you to repeat, it's performed annually, I don't get paid if I don't do it.....worse, if I go through to quickly the system has a fit... it just isn't an effective method of reform.
posted by zenon at 5:05 PM on August 7, 2010

Two further points; first, the assertion that a sizable portion of politicians are corrupt in the US is particularly off-base, and as others have noted your definition of corruption* might be the problem, or your apparent lack of familiarity with the machinations** of politics on the ground might be the source. Most of the interest in politician corruption and ethics is focused on systems abroad. This is because that really is where the action is, and relative to places like Sierra Lion the US has far fewer issues. In large part this is because there are entire systems gear towards finding corrupt politicians and weeding them out, so they are more visible in the US, and each case serves to confirm the bias that there is high levels of corruption.

Second, there is a fair amount of research, see for example, Meier: “I Seen My Opportunities and I Took'Em:” Political Corruption in the American States, or this work by some folks over at Dartmoth for some examples of contemporary research in the topic.

My take on it is during periods of heightened political division, politically motivated corruption witch hunts are more frequently conducted, like what happened under Reagan in the eighties.

*Paying 600$ for a toilet seat or a screw is a different kind of government corruption, as opposed to taking bribes or having a freezer full of cash, which is different than sleeping with prostitutes.
**it ain't pretty.
posted by zenon at 5:11 PM on August 7, 2010

"Here in Illinois all employees of the state are required to undergo ethics training - including elected officials"

The ethics training I received as a state employee (local college) in Illinois was radically different than the ethics training I received as an elected official (school board). The state employee one I had to take was the test with the computer that freaks out if you read fast and calls you a cheater if you finish too fast and that asks you if you intended to sell state contracts to someone who bribes you, which was clearly the sort of thing that came up for me all the time as an adjunct professor. The only piece of the training that remotely applied to me, as I recall, was not using the college's Xerox machine to copy campaign material.

For elected office, I don't think I even had to take the test, although I was provided with copious training materials (much more relevant to my specific position, which I appreciated). I did have to sign various statements about understanding the ethics and take an oath relating to ethics.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:19 PM on August 7, 2010

*Paying 600$ for a toilet seat or a screw is a different kind of government corruption,

If you really knew anything about making things & selling it to & getting paid by US government you would understand WHY that "toilet seat" (or insert what ever widget you like) costs "$600".

It is not "corruption" it is the "process" required to fulfill the contract.
posted by patnok at 6:56 PM on August 7, 2010

Thanks, Eyebrows McGee, I should have been clearer: the ethics testing I was referring too was part of my work for one of the state universities which sounds much like the system at your local college. My understanding of the law is that everyone who works for a state agency has to undergo some form of ethics training.

And it is spelled Sierra Leone.
posted by zenon at 7:03 PM on August 7, 2010

The short answer is that yes, this has been done before. I know that at the local level in my city, elected and appointed officials are required to take a course on ethics. We have an Ethics Commission here. At the state level, there is a required training on ethics for electeds and their staff. As people have described, there's a requirement for something similar at the federal level. So clearly it is possible, and is in place in some states and localities.

A better question may be to compare those places which do require some sort of training against those that do not, and see if there are differences, according to your definition of "corruption" or a more accepted definition.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:19 PM on August 7, 2010

another approach: require ethics classes in basic education for all teenagers. Then wait a couple of generations.
posted by knz at 12:06 AM on August 8, 2010

zenon, "Thanks, Eyebrows McGee, I should have been clearer: the ethics testing I was referring too was part of my work for one of the state universities which sounds much like the system at your local college. My understanding of the law is that everyone who works for a state agency has to undergo some form of ethics training."

Yes, my understanding is the state has two separate ethics training/test programs -- one for legislative employees and one for executive branch employees. (I think you and I were both executive-branch, technically, working for the state college/uni system.)

For the elected officials, I think they're required to take ethics oaths as part of their oaths of office, but I'm not sure they can be forced to take training in Illinois. Since they're not "hired" by the state, even if they're in a paid position, it can't be a condition of their employment the way it can be if they're hired rather than elected.

(There are other interesting complications one could introduce -- I took advantage of lots of training opportunities for my position, but I gave birth by C-section six weeks before my elected term started, so I was unable to participate in the three-day training right before taking my seat, since I was still not even supposed to be driving. With that particular training only offered once a year, how would you handle women giving birth, people with dying relatives, even people who catch the flu, if it was required? Would they lose their right to take their seat? But doesn't that abrogate the will of the people? Would women simply be barred from public office during their childbearing years, since three-day conferences with no childcare available while breastfeeding are a bit onerous? Would the state be required to offer make-up ethics courses for all the individuals who couldn't get to a particular one? Would the state pay travel if it's on the far side of a big state?)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:28 AM on August 8, 2010

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