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Tapping the common sense on ethics in government

This article is part of a series that reveals the many policy proposals on which Republican and Democratic voters agree.

Kull is Program Director of the Program for Public Consultation.

Lewitus is a Research Analyst at Voice of the People whose research interests focus on policy, public opinion and democracy reform.

Thomas is Vice President of Voice of the People and Director of Voice of the People Action. Thomas is an organizer and government relations professional with years of experience working in campaigns, advocacy, and policy research.

The Federal government has failed to address many issues facing our nation, largely due to increasing partisan polarization that results in near-constant gridlock. Some speculate this polarization is a reflection of the American public. However, Voice of the People has found that majorities of Republicans and Democrats actually agree on numerous positions–nearly 200 as of now. These surveys, conducted mostly by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, differ from standard polls in that they provide respondents with background information and pro-con arguments, before they give their recommendations.

The level of trust in Congress and the Federal government in general has been decreasing for decades. A rising perception that officials too often act for their own benefit, rather than the public’s, is a key driver. The public wants to limit government officials from engaging in self-serving activities that can steer their priorities away from serving the public. Specifically, overwhelming bipartisan majorities favor proposals that would more severely regulate the ability of officials to trade stocks while in office, and become lobbyists afterwards – both of which can influence how officials legislate and govern.

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Members of Congress trading stocks while in office has been criticized for many years, but the issue was given new life with accusations of Members making lucrative purchases of pharmaceutical stocks based on insider information on Covid-19 vaccines. Currently, the only regulation on stock-trading is a mandatory disclosure rule, along with the general law against insider trading. Numerous bills have been put forward to fully ban trading individual stocks by Members, as well as senior officials in the Executive Branch. None of these proposals have received a vote in Congress, yet are supported by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the public.

Over eight-in-ten support prohibiting Members of Congress, and their live-in family, from trading stocks in individual companies (National 86%, Republicans 87%, Democrats 88%), as well as the President, Vice President, and Supreme Court Justices (National 87%, Republicans 87%, Democrats 90%).

However, a Congressional proposal to ban stock-trading for all federal employees, including Post Office workers, does not receive majority support, with just 40% in favor, including just 42% of Republicans, 37% of Democrats and 42% of independents.

Alongside regulations on what officials can do while in office, the public supports regulations on officials’ activities after they leave office, particularly lobbying the government they just worked for. There has, for a long time, been a concern that the temptation of well-paid lobbying jobs can cause officials to govern in ways more in line with the will of their future employer rather than the public. Currently there are some regulations on this: many former officials must wait at least one year before they can become a lobbyist. This has, however, not stopped the “revolving door”. Over the last fifty years, the number of Members of Congress that became lobbyists has increased almost tenfold. Nearly half of the Members of the 115th Congress (2018-19) who left office took lobbying jobs.

Numerous bills have been put forward to increase waiting periods for former officials, and in one case prohibit lobbying for life. Despite those proposals having large bipartisan public support, none have passed Congress.

Extending the lobbying waiting period for Members to five years is favored by 65% of voters (Republicans 65%, Democrats 67%). Extending it for other federal officials also receives large bipartisan support; for senior Executive Branch officials to five years is favored by 71% (Republicans 72%, Democrats 72%); and for senior Congressional staffers to two years is favored by 74% (Republicans 75%, Democrats 75%). When it comes to lobbying the US government on behalf of a foreign government, the public goes further: 71% support prohibiting senior Executive Branch officials from lobbying for a foreign government for the rest of their life (National 71%, Republicans 71%, Democrats 71%).

A list of nearly 200 policies with bipartisan support can be found on Voice of the People’s Common Ground of the American People website.

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