AUSTIN, Texas — The politicization of ethics and a near-constant stream of scandals is making it harder to pressure politicians to comply with government ethics standards, a panel of ethics experts said Friday.
“In the past, the threat that you would go public with something as the director of the Office of Government Ethics was enough to keep people in line,” Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, told a standing-room only crowd of about 300 at the Texas Tribune Festival on Friday.
“But now, in the absence of any kind of congressional oversight, I found that not only was the threat not enough, but actually going public wasn’t enough,” Shaub said.
Shaub spoke at a panel titled “Is Government Ethics an Oxymoron” at the Texas Tribune Festival. The panel was moderated by Dave Levinthal, federal politics editor and senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. Shaub resigned from OGE over concerns about conflicts of interest held by President Donald Trump’s appointees and is now senior advisor to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Panelists said both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for creating a political atmosphere where ideology is more important than ethics.
Richard Painter said things have only gotten worse since he was chief ethics lawyer for the administration of President George W. Bush.
“I think part of it is all the social and political ideology that’s getting mixed in,” Painter said. Earlier this year, Painter, who switched parties, unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Minnesota.
In the past, the negative publicity from an ethics complaint alone was enough to prompt a Texas politician to clean up their act, said Margaret Moore, the district attorney of Travis County in Texas. But now, voters are suffering from scandal fatigue and ethical violations no longer rouse the same outrage.
“It is very hard to legislate proper behavior,” Moore said. “That instinct has to be one that is so societally expected that to violate it is offensive."
Ethics in the era of PACs
Friday’s panelist discussion also turned to the question of campaign financing in a post-Citizens United era. The 2010 Supreme Court decision paved the way for the creation of super PACs and for politically active nonprofits like Crossroads GPS to spend unlimited amounts of money directly advocating for or against political candidates.
Painter said politicians are now just doing whatever they can get away with within the rules.
“I think you can run a campaign and win without PAC money because PAC money, so far as I’m concerned, it’s the offer of a bribe. I don’t think honest politicians take the PAC money,” Painter said.
He pointed to U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Texas, who has said he will not accept corporate political action committee money. The example drew loud applause from the audience.
The panelists said the will to enforce ethical standards in American politics ultimately must come from the electorate.
Steve Wolens, chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission, encouraged the audience to make their voices heard. “Participate. Go down and talk to the city council. Go down and talk to your independent school district. Go out and volunteer in a campaign ... And when you’re fed up with that, go run for office.”