When people talk about politics, they don't talk about "the art of governing." They talk about heroes and villains, who-did-what-to-whom, and the unresponsiveness of our political leaders. They may support their own elected representatives, but they don't believe that most elected officials are trustworthy.
The Center for Ethics in Government was organized in 1999 to address this most critical, fundamental and far-reaching problem facing government in America: the loss of public trust and confidence in representative democracy. The center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization located at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver, and funded by NCSL's Foundation for State Legislatures.
The mission of the center is to be a leader in restoring confidence in representative government by promoting ethical behavior for state legislators, staff, lobbyists and advocates.
The center champions professional and ethical principles in the legislative process. Our work is to:
- Develop ethical standards for legislators and advocates.
- Conduct training programs in ethical decision making.
- Build a base of information on each state's ethics laws and rules.
- Establish a clearinghouse of best practice.
- Establish a library of media reporting and professional papers.
- Develop a network of speakers and authors.
- Hold forums to address issues of ethics and public integrity.
- Partner with others to promote civic education.
- Prepare legislative analyses of ethics and lobbying laws and study trends.
- In representative democracy and the legislative process.
- Public office is a public trust.
- Public trust extends to all who work in the public sector - elected officials, staff and advocates alike.
- Public trust requires us to place the public's interest above our own personal interests.
- Legislators, advocates and public servants have a responsibility to exhibit the highest ethical standards and behavior.
- All public servants have a particular responsibility to help restore the public's trust in government
Conflicts of interest may be the most common ethical dilemma faced by public officials. We have compiled information on states' Definitions of Conflict of Interest and several types of conflict of interest laws and rules, including: Representing Others Before Government, Voting Recusal, Nepotism, Pay-To-Play, Contracting With Government, Dual Office-Holding and Dual Employment. Revolving door laws also fall under our conflict of interest category, which ban legislators from lobbying government after they leave office. These "cooling-off" periods are intended to keep former legislators from using their government connections to benefit themselves or their business interests after they leave office.
Personal financial disclosure laws require public servants to open their books, to a certain extent, for public inspection. Many elected and appointed office-holders at the local, state and federal level must abide by versions of these provisions, which are different from campaign finance disclosures. View 50-state charts on requirements involving Income, Gifts and Honoraria, Client Identification, and Household Members. Other disclosures required of legislatures concern the relationships they have with others. For more information, view our surveys on state agency connections, lobbyist connections, and creditor/debtor requirements.
Many states restrict the value of gifts legislators can receive. Gift giving and receiving is prohibited in all states if it influences an official action. From that point on, states differ in the details. For more information, please visit our 50 state charts on Gift Restrictions, Limits on Giving and Receiving Food and Beverage, and Disclosure Requirements. Honoraria are payments for speeches, articles or appearances. Most states that prohibit honorarium allow reimbursement for travel, lodging and necessary expenses.
Lobbyists at the statehouse—whether paid or unpaid—have the job of influencing legislators to support a particular cause or point of view. Legislatures in all 50 states have passed laws regulating lobbyists to ensure that there is a distance between the lobbyists' legitimate role and the interests of the public at large. States' codes of ethics for lobbyists specify Registration Requirements and Fees, Activity Reporting, Definitions of Lobbying and Lobbyists, and Name Badges. At least 10 states prohibit state agencies from using public funds to contract with a lobbyist, and statutes in a few other states restrict the use of public funds for lobbying.
These bodies oversee that ethics laws and rules are followed. Information is provided for each Ethics Commission and Ethics Committee. All states have an ethics committee that provides internal oversight, or the ability to appoint an ad hoc committee. We have compiled charts on the respective powers and duties of Commissions and Committees,
While state laws frequently are meant to impact elected or appointed officials, those hired to work on behalf of the people often must abide by the same laws and rules. The Model Code of Conduct for Legislative Staff provides a guide for the conduct of legislative staff as they serve state legislatures, state legislators and the public. Our 50-state tables provide additional information on the Definitions of a Public Figure, State Statutes and Chamber Rules Governing Staff Political Activity. "The Compass" features legislative staff discussing the ethical values that they embody. Listen as staff from eight states reveal the ethical tension points they encounter and the tools they rely on to wade through their most difficult ethical dilemmas.