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Ethics Committees & Commissions

 

Ethics Committees & Commissions

Why do many states have two entities, a committee and commission, to address the same issue of legislative ethics? One reason is because the public tends to question the validity of a government who regulates their own ethical conduct.

Courts have upheld state legislatures' right to set and impose its own ethical rules, usually based on a separation of powers ruling. Despite the legality of the action, our government is "of the people" and must respond to the public's skepticism, warranted or not. The question then lay in the validity of internal versus external oversight.

The challenge facing legislative ethics committees is how to ensure their "credibility" with the press or the public. Most professions - including doctors, lawyers and teachers - discipline their own members through internal committees without facing accusations of attempts to protect their own. However, legislators who intend to discipline their fellow members face a higher level of scrutiny, one resulting from a commitment to public service.

In his book Drawing the Line, Dr. Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy and political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University describes the two viewpoints, saying, "On one side, colleagues want to be treated fairly and have their actions assessed in a broader context. On the other side, the media want guilt established and punishment dispensed."

Former Delegate Kenneth Montague, Jr., who was House Chair of Maryland's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics and Chair of the Center for Ethics in Government Executive Board, would respond to both sides by saying, "Both state ethics committees and commissions play essential and consistent roles in ensuring that our public servants behave ethically. Let's justly punish the bad apples. But let us not forget that the basis of effective government is public confidence. Media and others choose, at times, to create an appearance of unethical behavior when the vast majority of legislators are ethical public servants who operate with integrity and who take their jobs seriously."

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