Ethics in Congress

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

Public confidence in Congress has dropped to an all-time low, and yet the notion that Congress is full of "crooks" does not seem to bear close scrutiny. Instances of ethical impropriety that were significant either for setting constitutional precedent or for providing the impetus for reform are reviewed individually. This is followed by a discussion of the attempts at reform and of the ethics codes that were established. Information about documented offenses and the members involved are then analyzed in an attempt to examine potential explanations for and influences of the types of offense committed, by whom, and to what outcome. Finally, this thesis closes with conclusions regarding the direction of, the need for, and the efficacy of the ethics reforms that have been undertaken. This research shows that much of the opportunity for gross misbehavior has been limited by changes occurring in the latter part of the twentieth century. A review of these incidents and of reform attempts indicates a relatively small proportion of misdeeds and some fairly strong efforts to eliminate the most egregious forms of misbehavior. Even though Congress has often been accused of doing little to police itself unless forced, the fact that it does act in the more extreme cases sits well with a desire to prevent legislative paralysis-inducing witch hunts. The data collected on those who have had their misdeeds brought to light fail to show significant effects of party membership or offense type on whether the member remained in Congress. Small but statistically significant effects were found for election year and institution served. These data seem to indicate that while the system may not be perfect, it does work. Almost eighty percent of those accused of improper conduct left Congress soon thereafter. The overall negative perception of the American public toward Congress tends to perpetuate the notion that Congress is corrupt, when it actually seems to be a small proportion that engage in unethical behavior.

United States