The six keys to securing ethical government: A U.S. view

Editor’s Note: On Thursday Brookings Visiting Fellow, Amb. Norm Eisen addressed the Italian Parliament to discuss ethics in government, highlighting efforts in the US to improve transparency and accountability. In the speech, Amb. Eisen argues that while ethics reform can be difficult, it is an absolutely essentially part of any democratic system.

As Prepared For Delivery

Signora Presidente Boldrini, Madam President Brasseur, honorevoli Parlamentari, fellow panelists and distinguished guests, buon pomerigo. Thanks for inviting me to address the urgent subject of ethical standards in political life. It is an honor to be here in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, in this beautiful and ancient city, to which we Americans owe so many elements of our system of government. And in my town of Washington, DC we also borrowed a lot of your architecture, so we owe you for that as well.

In exchange for all that, as a small form of repayment, I would like to offer some perspectives from the U.S. as you consider the adoption of a code of ethical conduct for the Italian Parliament.

Since we are in the Chamber of Deputies, the equivalent of our U.S. Congress’ House of Representatives, I will start with best practices in that body, based on years of my professional life—too many—spent addressing alleged violations of its codes of conduct, including as a defense lawyer and later as the co-founder of a government watchdog group.

And I think there are also important lessons to be drawn from the new, innovative code of conduct for White House officials we established while I served as the “Ethics Czar” of President Obama. At his direction I helped write that new code, the Obama “ethics pledge,” and although I am biased I think it has been effective so far, knock wood, there have been no major White House scandals. So I will talk about the lessons of that code of conduct a bit as well. My reflections are those of a friend and partner nation with plenty of challenges of our own. So I approach the issue with genuine humility in sharing our successes and failures.

I. Government ethics while standing on one leg

So—what is our U.S. view of best practices for the contents of government codes of ethics? In the U.S. and dare I say internationally, there is a pretty well developed set of best practices. In our House of Representatives, for example, our equivalent of this Chamber of Deputies, Rule XXIII is the Code of Official Conduct. It provides rules in four core areas;

  • one, for regulating conflicts of interest, that is, situations where personal interests or financial holdings may conflict with official parliamentary duties;
  • two, for gifts, particularly those from lobbyists and other persons interested in parliamentary decisions;
  • three, for outside employment of parliamentarians before, during and after government service, particularly with lobbyists, a situation which we call in the US the revolving door; and
  • four, for parliamentarians’ proper use of official resources, that is, hiring, staff, budget, travel and such.

There is much more detail in our code of conduct, and a few other rules as well, but those four items—conflicts, gifts, employment and resources—are the key. These same four key areas are also at the center of our codes of conduct for employees of our executive branch, as codified in our statutes and regulations, as well as in the Obama ethics pledge.

I emphasize these four key items because, having helped draft one code of conduct, and having often delved into many other codes, I sometimes find that I lose the forest for the trees when working with these codes, that the priorities at least for me sometimes get lost in the detail. So I try to keep the core always in mind, though I should add that the content of any such code must of course be particularized for the circumstances of particular government bodies and jurisdictions. Thus our U.S. House code is five pages long, elaborating on those four core items, and the House Ethics Manual of official guidance for the code is 456 pages long. Our Obama ethics pledge we got onto one page, we were proud of that. And we made everyone read and sign that page. To be fair, we could do that because we built on and added to other rules which already existed, and we did have several pages of definitions and references attached to the pledge.

II. Enforcement and transparency

But a good code is only the beginning. In our U.S. experience, just as important as the code, maybe even more important, is its enforcement. And here is where I want to share some lessons drawn from U.S. challenges in recent years, and how we responded. I am going to add two more items to our check list: enforcement and transparency.

Candidly, even with our parliamentary code of conduct in the U.S., our enforcement has sometime lagged. That is in part because under our Constitution, the ultimate enforcers are the parliamentarians themselves, and so they can at times be understandably reluctant to sanction their colleagues and friends. It’s human nature.

For example, from about 1998 to 2004, there was a seven-year truce in filing complaints in our House of Representatives. The government watchdog organization I co-founded helped end that in 2004 by writing a complaint together with a brave but lonely member of Congress who was willing to file it with the House Ethics Committee. The resulting investigation resulted in the discipline of the member investigated, and ultimately helped lead to his party losing majority control of the body.

Out of all of that came a new enforcement tool in 2008, in our House of Representatives, that I strongly recommend to you: the creation of a new, independent entity, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). This is a nonpartisan fact-finding body that investigates allegations from any source, including whistleblowers who might otherwise be afraid to step forward. OCE then recommends action to the parliamentarians who constitutionally maintain the ultimate decision-making power. Most importantly, the OCE referrals become public, allowing press, civil society and voter accountability. As a result, I believe, since the creation of the OCE for our House in 2008, there have been a significantly higher number of meritorious investigations there than in our Senate, which does not have a comparable body. The total is about 46 OCE referrals and about 20 House disciplinary actions versus just four letters of admonition by our Senate in that period. To be fair the Senate is a smaller body—but not that much smaller!

That last aspect of OCE enforcement—transparency, and the accountability it brings from media, NGOs and the public—is the sixth and final point I want to emphasize. In our U.S. parliamentary ethics system we have many transparency mechanisms: asset disclosures that our parliamentarians file, disclosures that lobbyists must make about their activities, information in campaign finance filings, and more.

To explain the value of transparency, I would like to close by turning to one of our Obama White House ethics transparency innovations. Starting in 2009, we for the first time put on the Internet virtually all visitor records of those coming to the White House. It used to be that just to get a handful of these records you had to file litigation and wait for years to know who was coming to the White House, who they were meeting with and what the subject of the meeting was. Now millions of Obama White House visitor records are online, each with a dozen or so basic categories of information: the name of the visitor, the person visited, the subject of the meeting and so on.

Why is that important? I began by referencing the Obama White House’s record in avoiding major scandal. I think there are a number of reasons for that, including the President’s own integrity and the new code of conduct we put into place. But an important part of that success story has also been the fact that records of White House meetings go on the Internet for everyone to see. That transparency brings accountability from the press, civil society and the public. That transparency and accountability has in turn powerfully reinforced the code of conduct: it has discouraged people from having meetings they shouldn’t have, and if you don’t have the meeting, you can’t get in trouble for it.

So the U.S. view in one sentence: regulate conflicts, gifts, employment, and resource use, with strong enforcement and above all transparency. Thanks again for inviting me to share the U.S. perspective. Grazie!