Ethics and Congress: A Higher Standard?

I’ll admit to being a slave to my daily routine: get up before most sane people, run before daybreak, and finish these blog posts early a.m. before beginning any real work. And anything that disrupts that schedule alters my little world and what I do in it. For instance, yesterday I planned to write about ethics — but didn’t. I missed my self-imposed window of writing opportunity because I was on conference call with other members of the Akron Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

Sheesh. Wonder if traditional journalists follow the same standard?

Anyway, I believe in ethical conduct and civility. I’ve opined on these subjects many times in this space. And this year I agreed to serve as the Ethics Chair for the Akron PRSA chapter. Not a volunteer job that involves much heavy lifting — but I do respect the fact that you have to talk about ethics and create an awareness of the importance of ethical behavior on the part of individuals and organizations.

PRSA has a Code of Ethics. It provides some useful guiding principles and values for those in the field — and perhaps others. But without getting involved in an extended discussion of ethics here, the limitation of this code — and I expect those of most similar organizations — is that there really aren’t many penalties, if any, attached to not complying. Something tells me that effective ethics codes have teeth — and bite on occasion and when necessary.

Still, these codes are valuable because they set standards — and expectations among those in the field.

So I thought it was somewhat ironic that while I was on the conference call I learned via Twitter that Charlie Rangel was stepping down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee because of, as the NYT reports, ethical violations.

My expectation is that our elected officials should be held to the highest possible ethical standards — and the unfortunate reality is that we don’t always demand that. We should.

Here’s an interesting perspective from Ruth Marcus, writing in the WaPo, “Where’s the enforcement of House ethics rules?“:

Sometimes I think I’ve gotten too cynical after so many years in Washington.

Then I remember the House ethics committee.

This panel almost never fails to disappoint. It tends to be sluggish in its work and supine in its conclusions. But even by its indulgent standards, the committee reached new heights — lows? — of fecklessness last week as it brushed off complaints about lawmakers’ acceptance of corporate-funded travel.

When I worked at BFGoodrich, every year employees were required to sign an ethics statement. It talked a lot about confidentiality, insider trading, conflicts of interest and so on. But clearly, the message — which you agreed to — was the potential loss of your job if you didn’t comply fully.

Hey — that sets the standard — the expectation — pretty high.


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