Ethics in government often involves the avoidance of what could appear unethical.
That's why the largely unregulated flow of money into campaigns raises eyebrows among many Americans. The question inevitably arises: To what extent is such money purchasing special consideration from lawmakers, or from presidents?
Unless there's a clear system in place - restrictions on contributions and prompt disclosure of who made them - the public's doubts about its national government can deepen.
That applies equally to state governments. A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity traces a widespread appearance of conflict of interest on the part of many state lawmakers that springs from a political fact of life: All but nine state legislatures are not year-round. Hence part-time lawmakers get much of their income from other, more highly paid, jobs.
Thus pharmacists may be crafting laws that regulate drug sales, farmers shaping agriculture laws, and lawyers determining liability laws. Sometimes lawmakers have even lobbied for an industry they're charged with overseeing. The temptation to do what best serves one's personal financial interests is obvious.
But that doesn't mean it's always given in to. Most states have codes designed to curb conflicts of interest, and all but a handful have laws demanding that legislators disclose all sources of income. Much, obviously, depends on the choices made by individual lawmakers, guided by their consciences. The rule of thumb ought to be: If they, or their immediate relatives, stand to gain in a personal way from a vote, they should abstain.
That would not necessarily keep someone from legislating in broad fields - law, agriculture, etc. - where they have expertise.
Fundamentally, legislatures should demand observance of ethical codes, and strengthen such codes where needed.
It's worth remembering that state legislatures are where many of Washington's luminaries get their start.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society