Watching Over Political Ethics Can Be A Nasty Business

Organizations that monitor political ethics are an integral part of democracy in America.

Wikipedia lists 54 separate government watchdog organizations. Most of these groups were formed over the last few decades, some as offshoots of the activism of Ralph Nader in the 1960s and 70s. Others came into being as the Internet took hold as a research tool and communications medium.

Historically, the role of the watchdog has been served by the media. Freedom of the press was a right established early on by the Founding Fathers with the passage of the First Amendment. During the Golden Age of Journalism at the turn of the nineteenth century, investigative reporters, a.k.a.,“muckrakers,” targeted politicians engaged in putting their personal interests ahead of the public’s.

Additionally, the separation of powers within our federal system gives each of the three branches the constitutional clout to watchdog one another. These mechanisms include systemic checks and balances as well as additional authority vested in congressional ethics committees and special prosecutors.

But true independence requires an outside perspective. Lack of a partisan bias is critical for an organization to be worthy of journalistic credibility, and this is where watchdog organizations can show their real value.

Many of these groups share a clearly stated purpose: to investigate, expose, and ultimately stamp out corruption in government. But political ethics is a tricky business, especially when subtle – or sometimes not-so-subtle – partisanship comes into play.

Invariably, when a public official or a broader political group is called out on an apparent ethics violation, the response is often to question the questioner. What political ploy is behind the attack? What group or individual stands to benefit?

The actions and experience of one watchdog group exemplify this controversy well. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has promoted ethics and accountability in government since 2003. According to their website, they “target officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests.”

The group publishes lists of the most corrupt members of Congress, the worst governors, and exposes corruption at national, state, and local levels.

“Day in and day out, we work to ensure government officials – regardless of party affiliation – act with honesty and integrity and merit the public trust,” CREW claims. A noble quest, to be sure.

But not surprisingly, CREW has made enemies.

It stands to reason that a group like CREW, dedicated to exposing politicians for ethical misconduct, is going to be the focus of backlash from their targets. And when money and special interests are involved, the stakes are high. The group has been criticized for being biased in who they target, for serving a partisan agenda, and ultimately, for favoring a more progressive political spectrum.

Most notable among its critics is an effort called “CREW Exposed,” which describes CREW as a left-wing attack dog.

CREW Exposed is an arm of another nonprofit, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF).  The CCF describes itself as “dedicated to protecting consumer choices and promoting common sense.”

However, the group is strongly tied to Rick Berman, a lobbyist for the fast food, meat, agriculture, and tobacco industries. Given where their funding comes from, its motives seem evident, and it is no wonder they have opposed a group like CREW which targets those who yield to the same special interests that the CCF supports.

The CCF has its own share of critics. The website, Berman Exposed (not surprisingly a project of CREW), highlights nearly 50 separate efforts related to Berman.

The CCF seems to have a clear conflict of interest in the area of political ethics. Lobbyists walk a fine line between advancing the cause of special interests and staying on the right side of the law. However, the CCF does raise some valid points about CREW in its criticisms.

Looking at the numbers, which the CCF conveniently provides through a series of compelling charts on CREW Exposed
, CREW does appear to disproportionately target Republicans over Democrats.

As an example, CREW’s list of the 17 most corrupt members of Congress includes 11 Republicans and only 6 Democrats. Whether this reflects an actual disparity in political ethics (or lack thereof) characterized by the two parties is subject to debate beyond the scope of this article.

Our nation was founded on a system of checks and balances. As watchdog groups increase in their numbers and the role they play, it is only fitting that these groups watchdog one another. But it is increasingly difficult to sort out the motives and activities in which these groups are engaged.

Partisan agendas can be easily hidden from plain sight. Political ethics should be an area blind to ideology, yet this does not seem to be the case in practice. In one sense, the existence of ethics watchdogs on both sides of the spectrum may be sufficient to offset one another and promote a political system free from corruption. Yet, the question of credibility is an important one, and can fuel the fires of political division they strive to quench.

Photo Credit: Maryna Pleshkun / shutterstock.com