Predicting Political Influence on State Ethics Commissions: Of Course We Are Ethical—Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink

AuthorJonathan Rauh
Date01 January 2015
Published date01 January 2015
Jonathan Rauh is a doctoral candidate
at the University of South Carolina. His
interests include ethics and accountability,
education policy, and health policy. His work
has appeared in Public Organization
Review, Administration & Society, and
Education Policy Analysis Archives. In
his current position, he works in regulatory
affairs for the health insurance industry.
98 Public Administration Review • January | February 2015
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 98–110. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12290.
Jonathan Rauh
University of South Carolina
Abstract: is article explores the ability of elected of‌f‌i cials to af‌f ect the autonomy of state ethics commissions.  e
author examines autonomy as a function of the capacity of ethics commissions to control their f‌i nances and personnel
decisions and how the presence or absence of that capacity af‌f ects whether bureaucratic structures can function inde-
pendently of politics. Using data from the 2011 State Integrity Investigation, the analysis extends previous arguments
concerning political actors’ desire to af‌f ect ethics commissions. Findings suggest that elected of‌f‌i cials use their positions to
control the makeup of commission leadership and f‌i nancial resources, with the goal of decreasing commissions’ ability
to act autonomously.
Practitioner Points
Ensuring that those who are monitored do not control appointments is essential for reducing political
interference on ethics commissions.
It is necessary to set positive standards of required experience for serving as a commissioner rather than just
relying on negative standards for who may not serve.
A commission with a higher budget relative to its required tasks will likely be more autonomous.
Constituencies expect ethics commissions to provide
oversight of their public and elected of‌f‌i cials. In a
white paper for the National Conference of State
Legislatures, Comlossy states that ethics commis-
sions “work to ensure voters’ trust in policymakers
and political institutions by monitoring compliance
with ethics laws and ensuring
ethical conduct by those under
their jurisdiction” (2011, 1).
Commissions serve as watch-
dogs for the public; they ensure
that conf‌l icts of interest are
exposed, f‌i nancial dealings are
done “in the daylight,” and
the decision-making process is
transparent. In practice, however, ethics commissions
are primarily compliance organizations that set mini-
mum standards for what is acceptable (Smith 2003b).
Most commissions lack strong mandates but also
can only interpret what is ethical according to set
rules and guidelines. Ethics commissions and most
ethics policies have been born of scandals (Rosenson
2003)—the trend of creating state ethics commis-
sions can be traced to Watergate. Ethics policies,
therefore, tend to be responsive and do not ref‌l ect the
true preferences of elected of‌f‌i cials (see Anechiarico
Predicting Political Inf‌l uence on State Ethics Commissions:
Of Course We Are Ethical—Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink
Political inf‌l uence over ethics commissions is an
important topic in thinking about the legiti-
macy of these commissions. However, politi-
cal inf‌l uence over ethics commissions presents some
sticky problems for the current literature on bureau-
cratic autonomy. No bureaucracy has the authority
to make its own mandate, but
it is important that some have
greater autonomy than oth-
ers. Ethics commissions do not
usually regulate the providers
of public goods or other private
entities; instead, they target
elected and public of‌f‌i cials,
that is, those who make public
policy.  erefore, it is desirable that ethics commis-
sions have broad mandates; have the authority, fund-
ing, and capacity to accomplish those mandates; and
be able to do so without ex ante or ex post pressure
from elected of‌f‌i cials.
Commissions are politically empowered institu-
tions that have a responsibility to monitor those who
empower them.  is power and the ability of commis-
sions to harm elected of‌f‌i cials both economically and
politically may give elected of‌f‌i cials an incentive to
exert control over ethics commissions.
No bureaucracy has the author-
ity to make its own mandate,
but it is important that some
have greater autonomy than

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