States Can Teach Congress About Ethics

Media Contacts

The states are far ahead of Congress in establishing independent ethics enforcement for legislators according to a study released today by Maryland PIRG. The report, Honest Enforcement: What Congress Can Learn From Independent State Ethics Commissions, found that twenty-three states have created commissions, boards or offices that operate largely free of partisan interference to oversee the ethics rules that apply to elected officials.

Responding to widespread voter concern about corruption in Congress, the House and Senate passed strong new restrictions on gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists in the first weeks of the new Congress. “It’s an encouraging first step, but the new rules will only be as effective as the will to enforce them,” said policy advocate, Johanna Neumann of Maryland PIRG.

The report separated out states that allow legislators to review complaints and decide whether to investigate allegations against their colleagues. Those state bodies were not determined to be independent.

“Under these basic criteria, Congress would not even make the cut,” noted Neumann. “ In contrast to these states, Congress currently relies on self-policing. Conflict of interest rules are optional and ethics committee members can and have been removed because they dared to enforce the rules against a powerful colleague.”

The report also reviewed oversight procedures in the private sector and found that public businesses and professional licensing boards incorporate many of the conflict of interest elements favored by independent ethics commissions. “Congress is almost alone in choosing to police itself,” concluded Neumann.

In the report, states in which a citizen’s panel is authorized to review complaints and proceed with investigations were determined to be independent. States were further divided into four categories by the level of independence. States were scored by how well they fared under the following criteria:

  • whether outside panelists who oversee a professional director and a staff of impartial investigators;
  • if there are clear and mandatory conflict of interest guidelines limiting service to those who are not covered by the ethics rules or closely involved in partisan activities;
  • if panelists serve set terms and cannot be removed for any reason other than cause;
  • if panelists have the power to receive complaints from the general public;
  • if panelists have the ability to launch investigations without legislative or outside approval and recommend or enforce sanctions against those who have violated the rules;
  • the degree to which there is appropriate disclosure of the panel’s actions.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi last week appointed a bipartisan task force to look into revising the ethics enforcement rules in Congress. Maryland PIRG encourages Congress to follow the lead of the states and adopt honest enforcement. The full report can be viewed at