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Gradual Institutional Change in Congressional Ethics: Endogenous Pressures toward Third-Party Enforcement

  • Denis Saint-Martin (a1)


Ethics reform in Congress is expected to display extensive instability and “cycling.” Members hold conflicting views about ethics, and parties have weak capacities to order their preferences. The trend is for legislators to resist change until a scandal erupts and forces them to act. As a result, ethics reforms in Congress have typically developed through a layering of short-term and piecemeal institutional responses to the scandal of the moment. But the accumulation over time of seemingly small adjustments to the ethics process has been more path-dependent than anticipated in theories of disjointed pluralism. Legislators have had to commit to more open and collaborative forms of self-enforcement because of the feedback effects of ethics rules on Congress and the “tight-coupling” of standards of conduct between the executive and legislative branches of government. With each new scandal and partisan abuse of the process, pressures for a more independent mechanism to enforce ethics rules has grown stronger over time. The more ethics became governed by impersonal rules, the more it undermined Congress's past trajectory of political self-discipline. It is in this changing balance between positive and negative feedback effects that we can locate the mechanism that is gradually transforming ethics self-regulation in Congress into a new form of “co-regulation” with outsiders in the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).


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The author acknowledges funding for this project from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and wishes to thank the reviewers and the editors for their useful guidance.

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Gradual Institutional Change in Congressional Ethics: Endogenous Pressures toward Third-Party Enforcement

  • Denis Saint-Martin (a1)


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