“(It) Makes Me Want to Throw Up”

Are the ethics rules governing Congress effective? How about the rules for the executive branch? Readers speak out on the issue.

Another year, another political scandal in Washington.

With the controversy and various proposals floating around our nation’s Capitol to try to reform the system that leads to corruption and scandal in the legislative branch, we asked reader’s last week how those in the executive branch of government think about current ethics rules. Here are the results.

In response to the question "Are the Congressional rules governing the members’ acceptance of gifts from lobbyists and other third parties effective?", 95% of those responding said "no." 2% thought they were effective and 3% were not sure.

On the question of "Is Congress doing an acceptable job policing itself in dealing with ethics issues?", 97% of readers responded with "no" and 2% were not sure. 1% thought Congress was doing an acceptable job.

And, as to the future of reform in Congress, readers were a little more hopeful but apparently don’t really expect much to change. On the question of "Will the recent controversy surrounding ethics in Congress lead to meaningful change in conduct of Congressional representatives?", 73% said "no." 22% were not sure and 5% think it will lead to meaningful change.

We also asked readers about ethics rules as they apply to the executive branch. The responses were significantly different.

In response to "Has the executive branch been effective in policing its own gift rules for federal employees?", 51% said "no." 30% said that the executive branch has been effective and 19% are not sure.

And, as to the question of "Are the executive branch rules for acceptance of gifts by federal employees effective?", 43% said "yes." An equal percentage (43%) said "no" and 14% were not sure.

In short, the ethics rules are considered by readers to be more effective for federal employees than for Members of Congress.

The written comments from readers displayed a resentful tone toward the ethics displayed by our elected representatives. Here is a sample.

A supervisor from the USDA in Michigan wrote: "Congress will always change rules to make them effective for themselves."

A human resources specialist from the Department of Defense commented: "The corruption in the Congress relative to accepting gratuties, gifts, payouts and bribes is rampant and both parties are to blame. The only way to stop it is to (1) have all campaigns financed by the Govt. (2) prevent campaigning to begin except by certain date. (3) absolutely no gifts, gratuities can be accepted (4) no exceptions whatsover (5) Appoint a ‘sheriff" to oversee the congressional ethics – who can administer "frontier justice" – i.e. take action."

An HR assistant from the Forest Service in Placerville, CA wrote: "The whole system is broken and some minor tinkering around the edges will not make it better. If you place more restrictions on the money it will drive it further underground. Our lawmakers are now representing whoever sends the most money to their re-election campaigns, not their constituents back home. Members of Congress and their staffs should not be allowed to become lobbyists for at least 5 years after leaving office. We also need to stop the gerrymandering and draw up competitive congressional districts."

A geophysicist from Interior in Denver said: "Why can’t the Congress be subject to the same restrictions as the Executive Branch? It is ridiculous to expect that a lowly employee is restricted on a lunch but congresspersons can have their total ‘vacation’ to Scotland paid just to give a talk in the bar."

A supervisory human resources specialist from Veterans Affairs in North Carolina displayed a cynical side: "Congress police themselves…what a joke! Most of them go into their jobs as ordinary citizens with regular wages, and end up multi-millionaires…how do you do that? I would love to be able to do the same, as I’m sure many every day Civil Servants would. Perfect example is Bill Clinton (who)… when he left office (had assets of) something like $10 million, along with his wife becoming a U.S. Senator from a state where they had never even lived…the foolish people of NY!"

An electronics engineer from the Dept of Defense in Ogden, Utah had this comment: "Lobbying is legalized bribery. It must be completely eradicated. The present system is way out of control. The lowly fed. employee must declare a gratuity of a few tens of dollars while "lawmakers" (which look more and more like Ali Baba and his ‘team’) may accept rides in corporate jets, play golf in world-class resorts and be wined and dined in exquisite restaurants."

A library technician from Washington, DC sees unequal treatment: "We of the rank and file would never get away with these egregious ethical violations."

An accountant from the Department of Education in Washington, DC thinks the ethics system for Congress is broken: "It is unconscionable that legislators do not hold themselves to the same standards set for career federal employees. While not perfect, those standards clearly reign in the greed and corruption that accompany lavish gifts. Congress has no such safety net, nor does it have a system of oversight to identify and curtail such abuses."

A consumer safety inspector for the USDA in Indiana says the system makes him ill: "This stuff about congressional members and White House staffers on the take makes me want to throw up. The stuff they get slapped on the hand for would get us field employees fired for just thinking about what they have actually committed. I guess they forget they are public servants just as those of us at the bottom and they should be held to an even higher standard."

And a public health analyst with the CDC in Atlanta says only: "Our government is for sale to the highest bidder."

And what about ethics in the executive branch? There were not anywhere near the number of comments on this issue but here are several that reflect the thinking of some of our readers.

A union official with the Department of Defense writes: "Congress will not police and correct itself, why should Executive Branch do it differently?"

An Army auditor in Virginia commented: "Many Military and Civilian managers don’t care about ethics. They simply want to get done what they would like to accomplish. They look for any way around the laws; if none, they simply ignore the laws. All Government personnel should be made to repeat their Oath of Office and receive ethics training each year."

An electrical engineer with the Army in Massachusetts writes: "I’ve always felt that ethics rules imposed on federal employees by Congress were hypocritical, even if needed. My basic rule of ethics has always been ‘Remember, you were hired, not elected. Don’t act like an elected official.’ "

An inspector with the FAA in Portland, Oregon says ethics are routine where he works: "I’ve never understood why Congress does not have to play by the same ethics rules as us. We are held to a very strict standard and it is enforced."

An engineer with the USDA in Philadelphia thinks ethics are lacking in the executive branch as well as in Congress: "Unfortunately, the survey deals with ‘gift’ rules and not with ethics in the broadest sense. I work in a relatively small unit, yet I know of at least three cases where highly-paid federal employees (GS14’s) abused the public trust and did unethical things that benefitted themselves and cost US a lot of money and time, and GOT AWAY with it! One individual went to another agency (and got a promotion!) and now oversees the budget….. Another is still on our roles, but because of a court ruling does not have to come to work and is still paid full salary and benefits! Instances like this are ephemeral throughout the government and are really good for the morale of the rest of the workforce. And I haven’t even mentioned all of those employees who ‘hold a position’ with the government, i.e. show up, but produce little or nothing. Is that ethical?"

And several readers expressed similar thoughts to this Department of Justice Program Manager from Washington, DC: "It seems that the organization I work for has stronger ethics rules than Congress. I am sure that the recent discussions on changes to lobbying are merely an election year ploy… no meaningful changes will be made. This will be played out just long enough so that the next scandal or other important issue pushes this off the ‘front page’."

Thanks to all of the readers who took the time to vote in our recent survey and a special thanks to those who took the time to send in comments on this latest survey.