Being Ethical

NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government

Being Ethical is an advice column for legislators by legislators, where a panel of current and former lawmakers weighs in on how to resolve ethical dilemmas.

October 2007

This "Being Ethical" is part one of a three-part series.  Watch for part two in the November State Legislatures Online Magazine.

QUESTION

I just finished my first legislative session.  I went through the new member and caucus orientations, attempted to get to know my colleagues and lobbyists, studied bills and generally participated as a rather quiet freshman.  But nothing prepared me for some of the situations I faced where I felt uncomfortable. 

Do I owe my campaign contributors anything?  Is it OK to form friendships with lobbyists?  Should I always keep my word to one of the my fellow legislators, even if I change my mind on a bill?  How much information should I give the press?  Should I always answer their questions honestly?  And sometimes my values conflict with those of my constituents.  I felt I recognized some problems after they went by me.  Help me prepare for next year's session.  What are some ethical pitfalls I should avoid?  KJB

Submit your own ethical dilemma.

Dick FinanDick Finan
Former Ohio Senate
President

Congratulations on completing your first session.  Your questions show you've uncovered some of the dilemmas in creating relationships with fellow legislators, lobbyists, staff, citizens and the press.  As you develop these relationships, you'll find that your life will get easier.

Your campaign contributors have the right to access your ear in order to state their position.  And, you better return their phone calls.  But you do not owe them your vote.  You must cast that as you see fit after you have gathered all information from all sides.

Should you form friendships with lobbyists?  Absolutely!  Over the years, I've found these to be valued relationships.  But quickly learn who you can trust and who you cannot.  Loose lips sink ships!

Deborah RossRepresentative Deborah Ross
North Carolina

What do you owe your campaign contributors?  You owe them candor about how you vote and why.  However, you were elected to represent your constituents and need to vote their interests, whether they were campaign contributors or not.

Remember that lobbyists were not interested in being your friend before you were elected.  They are paid to influence you.  However,  to be an effective legislator, you should have an open door policy with anyone who wants to talk with you about an issue.  This is an important way to gather information.  And it is natural to like some people more than others, but be wary of forming personal relationships with people whose job it is to influence you. 

 

Dennis RichardsonRepresentative Dennis Richardson
Oregon

You've focused on a crucial ethical dilemma for legislators.  To answer it requires separating myths from reality.  It is a myth to think that campaign contributors send a legislator big contributions because they like the legislator or have no where else to send their money.  Big contributors support legislators who have a political philosophy in harmony with their own interest.  When someone accepts a substantial gift—whether a campaign contribution or otherwise—it creates an implicit sense of indebtedness to the giver of the gift.  There is an innate, psychological need created to return the favor.  In politics the big contributors hope a "quid pro quo" will come in the form of a favorable vote on a key issue. 

Legislators should be friendly with lobbyists, but not personal.  This way, you lessen conflicts of interest that develop when legislation might adversely affect a "friend."

RECAP

Earlier this year a legislator submitted an ethical dilemma that occurred while he was a guest on a local radio talk show. Going into the show, he knew that most of the callers would share his conservative political point of view. However, some of the callers went to an extreme with an anti-government/anti public official attitude that he did not agree with. He didn't say anything and asked the panel what they would have done.

Follow Up

MK felt properly chastised and encouraged by the panel's advice, and wished he'd had more courage. As luck would have it, he was asked to be on another broadcast of the talk show. "Probably because I was such a wimp," he said. This time, he stood his ground.

Submit an ethical dilemma.