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Congress must restore faith with new ethics rules for its members

Congress must restore faith with new ethics rules for its members
© Greg Nash

There has been no shortage of ethical scandals that involve members of Congress in recent decades, and the last year was no different. Whether improper use of campaign funds, various instances of sexual misconduct, or dubious relationships between candidates and their campaign orbit, the persistence of these kinds of real or perceived acts of corruption is troubling. Perhaps these violations of public trust sheds light on why Congress enjoys such a dismal approval rating from Americans.

However, there is one kind of corruption that is a very strong breach of public trust, namely the allegations or proven instances of members of Congress using their positions as federal officials for their own financial benefit. It is so common for members of the House and the Senate to get caught making financial transactions, usually involving stocks, that are at best suspicious and at worst seem like cases of insider trading.

Consternation over such conflicts of interest were front and center in the Georgia Senate races, where two candidates had ethical clouds hanging over their heads, centered on the perception that both of them engaged in improper stock transactions based on their plum positions as current members of the Senate. These perceptions featured heavily in the runoffs, and the two candidates facing these issues lost their races.

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Pernicious corruption among members of Congress inflicts real damage. First of all, they work for the constituents they represent. Taxpayers foot the salaries of lawmakers, as well as their offices, staffers, and travel. For members of Congress to leverage their positions in order to protect their financial interests at costs to the public is a significant ethical breach. It is also a waste of our dollars that should go toward the elected leaders who will put the interests of their constituents ahead of their own.

It is also important to ensure public trust in elected leaders. This kind of corruption can have an adverse effect on the view of Congress. Distrust and discontent pervade the political climate, and members of Congress engaging in unethical acts do not help. What can be done?

Congress can amend its own internal rules to restrict the kinds of financial assets that members can own and the kinds of transactions they can make while in office. This would not even need new legislation. Congress could also enhance the authority of its ethics office, which could in turn bring about some accountability in the face of such misdeeds.

To more permanently install better ethics rules, Congress should enact a law that would mandate all members to place stocks and other assets into a blind trust for the duration of their time in office. Lawmakers could still invest, but they would not be able to make certain transactions that could appear like a conflict of interest until they have left office.

Representatives Abigail Spanberger and Chip Roy have reintroduced the bipartisan bill that would enact this very mandate. It has support from a broad and diverse coalition of civil society groups, including Project on Government Oversight, National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Americans for Prosperity, and more.

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The bill, known as the Trust in Congress Act, is meaningful but targeted in nature. It would mandate all members, their spouses, and their dependent children to place their assets into a blind trust no later than three months after the start of their service in Congress. It does not seek to outright ban members from having assets tied to the performance of the economy, but it does seek to eliminate some of the conflicts of interest that have badly broken trust between members and their constituents before.

These changes to the rules and laws governing the conduct of members of Congress would be a critical step in restoring public trust in elected leaders. Ensuring a clean and responsive Congress is neither a liberal or conservative issue, nor a Democratic or Republican issue. It is a good government issue. Congress must make these changes now.

Dylan Hedtler Gaudette serves as the government affairs manager for the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. Andrew Lautz serves as government affairs manager for National Taxpayers Union in Washington.