ETHICS IN CONGRESS: From Individual to Institutional Corruption by Dennis F. Thompson

ETHICS IN CONGRESS: From Individual to Institutional Corruption

Email this review


A lucid perspective on the state of congressional ethics by Thompson (Political philosophy/Harvard). At a time of rock-bottom public confidence, Thompson finds that the perceived rise in congressional corruption owes more to higher standards and increased public scrutiny than it does to a decline in political morality. Thompson seeks to shift the emphasis away from cases of individual corruption, which make for good copy and provide opportunities for cathartic voter outrage but are often relatively harmless. Private sexual peccadilloes, for instance, are a personal matter. The author's concern is the grayer area of institutional corruption: instances where legislators improperly pursue political, not personal, gain. Determining what constitutes such corruption can be a sticky issue of institutional norms, but the practice is insidious--and strikes at the heart of the institution itself, argues Thompson. Recognizing such cases is difficult because they are often almost indistinguishable from acceptable political behavior. While political gain is a reasonable goal of politicians, for instance, it becomes unethical when it leads to misuse of political power or the promotion of self-interest at the expense of public interest. Thus, if, in responding to a valid constituent complaint, a legislator threatens an administrative agency with a funding cut, the legislator may be guilty of institutional corruption. Thompson decorates his scholarly study with amusing anecdotes and addresses more seriously three cases of congressional corruption that illuminate his points--those of the Keating Five, David Durenburger, and former House Speaker James Wright. Thompson's suggestions--education, efforts to define the ethical ground involved, and a beefed-up ethics commission composed of citizens--are level-headed, if a bit underwhelming. Readable, erudite, and subtly argued. Probing and yet optimistic, Thompson cuts to the chase of a fevered issue, providing a sound look at what we should and shouldn't be worried about in this complicated debate.

Pub Date: Aug. 31st, 1995
ISBN: 0815784236
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Brookings