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Less is More
In his new book, Scandal Proof, Calvin Mackenzie (government) concludes ethics laws may do as much harm as good.

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Less is More

By Stephen Collins '74

picture of book
Scandal Proof: Do Ethics Laws Make Government Ethical?
G. Calvin Mackenzie (government) with Micheal Hafken
2002, Brockings Institution Press

When G. Calvin Mackenzie suggested in his latest book that ethics laws should be repealed, he realized that was a bit like criticizing motherhood. Who, after all, is opposed to ethical behavior by public servants?

Mackenzie, Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor in American Government, was undeterred. His contrarian book, Scandal Proof, analyzes the history of federal ethics regulations (e.g. disclosure of personal finances, restrictions on post-government activities, bans on accepting outside honoraria) as well as their effectiveness and some unanticipated consequences. And in the end he waves a red cape before this sacred bovine. "Deregulation," he concludes, "will make public service more attractive to talented people. It will speed up the emplacement of new administrations. Politics will be de-fanged in important ways. Presidents will be freer to concentrate on their policy and administrative leadership responsibilities. The American people will have less reason for skepticism about government integrity."

Mackenzie's efforts to determine whether government has been more ethical since the proliferation of ethics laws, particularly in the post-Watergate era, are inconclusive, and he doesn't anticipate a significant increase in unethical behavior if certain provisions are repealed. "The law is too blunt an instrument to define or ensure proper behavior," he writes. "Public employees act ethically when they adhere to high standards of conduct and when they possess sensitivities that cannot all be etched in law."

Mackenzie's research on ethics laws is part of his broad interest in the executive branch and presidential appointments. He's clearly discouraged by the evolution of the appointments process and the way ethics laws have contributed to gridlock. He likens a new U.S. president to a corporate chief executive who sweeps into office only to be told: "Oh, by the way, did we mention that any of the people you choose to run the divisions of the company will have to be approved by a committee of your worst enemies, each of whom has a veto over your choices? And they will expect you to choose people who are willing to have every aspect of their private lives subjected to constant and penetrating scrutiny and to forgo any income that doesn't come from the company and to dispose of any financial asset that might benefit from the decisions they make for the company."

Scandal Proof reviews how most of America's ethics policies developed in the second half of the 20th century. In the climate of McCarthyism, Dwight Eisenhower ordered FBI background investigations for presidential appointees. Lyndon Johnson instituted confidential financial disclosure for senior federal employees. In the wake of Watergate, "no politician wanted to be on the side of less ethics," and the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 and other post-Watergate reforms erected a maze of laws, rules and regulations unprecedented in world history, Mackenzie says.

After that, presidents voluntarily added their own policies in a game of leapfrog with the goal of appearing more ethical than the previous administration.

Mackenzie argues that, while clearly setting high standards of conduct is essential, current financial disclosure requirements and the broad use of FBI background investigations both need to be curtailed. The financial disclosure rules cover more than a quarter of a million executive branch employees, mostly career civil servants. His research found that publicly disclosed financial statements rarely are requested for review and, when they are, "political embarrassment and harassment" seem to be a common motivation.

FBI investigations should be shrunk to cover only appointments with clear national security implications, he suggests, and they needn't "delve into matters of reputation and character, of medical or marital history" or other areas not related to bona fide national security concerns.

While Mackenzie expects the main audiences for his book to be journalists, scholars, current and potential government employees ("I signed a bunch of copies for members of Congress," he said in an interview shortly after the book's release), it got a laudatory review from syndicated columnist David Broder. "Academics are never more useful than when they are taking on conventional wisdom and tearing it apart," Broder wrote. "Cheers for [Mackenzie's] having told us that the emperor of government ethics has no clothes."

Still, Mackenzie isn't optimistic for a rollback of ethics rules. "Just think how it would sound in a thirty-second ad in your next election campaign," he said.


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