An Extra Dose of Political Transparency

Politicians who want to govern openly and honestly shouldn't limit themselves to what financial-disclosure laws require.
August 8, 2016
By Marian Currinder  |  Contributor
Policy director for government accountability for Transparency International-USA

The past year has seen no shortage of political scandals involving state officials. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted on 12 felony counts connected to using his office for personal gain. New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted on corruption charges. Five Pennsylvania state representatives were convicted on bribery, corruption, extortion and conflict-of-interest charges. And Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox pleaded guilty to wire fraud, bribery and filing a false tax return.

Scandals like these are troubling in both their substance and frequency and have contributed to historically low levels of trust in government. Corruption cases involving public officials leave citizens with the distinct impression that their voices matter less than those of the wealthy. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is a case in point: Even though the U.S. Supreme Court recently vacated his 2015 corruption conviction, the fact that he accepted $177,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman who was seeking high-level political access certainly doesn't sit well with the average citizen.

Had McDonnell publicly disclosed the gifts and loans he received, would it have made a difference to voters? An equally important question is whether publicly disclosing the gifts, including designer clothes and a Rolex watch, would have made him think twice about accepting them in the first place.

Strong disclosure laws help keep elected officials accountable. Many states require some level of gift disclosure, and 47 states require some level of financial disclosure. Although no states currently require public officials to make their tax returns public, this information would provide voters with another important way to compare a lawmaker's words against his or her record. Presidential candidates are expected to disclose their tax returns (not that all of them do). Why not ask the same of all candidates running for public office?

We expect elected officials to act within the law. But campaigning and serving in an open and honest way often requires going beyond what the law requires. Too many states draft ethics rules that encourage lawmakers to disclose the bare minimum of what is legally required. On the heels of the McDonnell scandal, Virginia lawmakers placed annual limits on what lobbyists and people seeking to do business with the state can give to public officials. But at the same time, they exempted gifts from vaguely defined "personal friends." This means that lawmakers can opt out of disclosing gifts from friends who also happen to have an interest in state laws and regulations. McDonnell, by the way, described the businessman who gave him $177,000 in gifts and loans as a close "family friend."

While weak ethics laws encourage weak disclosure, it's important to recognize that lawmakers have a choice. They can, for example report all gifts (over a nominal value) they receive, regardless of what the law requires. Proactively making this information available to voters signals a willingness to serve openly and honestly.

Having a full picture of an elected official's finances also can help voters understand the range of interests that may inform a candidate's political and policy choices. While states vary in the level of asset disclosure they require, lawmakers in Idaho, Michigan and Vermont are not required to disclose any assets -- but that doesn't mean they shouldn't. Robust financial disclosure encourages public officials to be mindful of any conflicts of interest their holdings present. A lawmaker's source of earnings, investments and properties should not influence what bills he introduces or how she votes.

A similar argument can be made for why public officials should make their tax returns public. Lawmakers stand to gain or lose by the tax policies they enact, and their tax records offer voters one way to determine whether they are benefiting from their own actions. Tax returns also shed light on the charitable contributions public officials make, as well as the actual amount they receive in investments and other unearned income. Even though state officials are not required to disclose this information, doing so would demonstrate a meaningful commitment to transparency.

Voluntarily committing to comprehensive disclosure of gifts, assets and taxes requires little more than a willingness to be transparent. Weak ethics rules are problematic, but they are not a hindrance. Democracy is best served when voters are able to make informed choices on Election Day and hold those who serve them accountable.