Why Ethics Are Essential

We’re letting candidates know that if they want to represent us in the halls of Congress or in overseeing our state democracy, they can start by pledging to ethical leadership now, as they campaign for our votes.

Oregonians and all Americans should expect our elected representatives to be accountable to high ethical principles and stand up for the public interest. A democracy cannot thrive without the public’s trust in politicians. Ethics is the foundation to public service and leadership. If trust in our government runs low, it’s up to voters to hold our elected officials accountable.

Voters feel ethics in our politics is declining and many in the U.S. have the opinion that everyone is unethical so there’s nothing we can do about it. We can do something about it by expecting more of our elected officials. Ethics should be a starting point for voters weighing political candidates. If you were part of a hiring team, would ethics be essential to you? If you say yes, then ethics should be an essential part of your decision to cast a ballot for an elected official. Ethics shouldn’t be just a nice-to-do option. It should be a deal-breaker.

As our country struggles to uphold ethical norms in government, Common Cause Oregon convened a group of Oregon leaders – across party lines – to promote government ethics. The group includes representatives from large and small business, former Republican and Democratic legislators, a former State Supreme Court Chief Justice, former state government managers, and a university professor/political analyst. The group offers broad expertise, including codes of conduct in the private sector and government, leadership of ethics and audit functions, leadership of the judicial branch of state government, and membership on the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. We are dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.

DHM Research (2020) found that Oregonians rated being honest and ethical as the most essential thing for people in high political office. Oregonians also highly valued maintaining a tone of civility & respect in politics. But the Pew Research Center (2019) found that U.S. adults rated ethics in government as the second biggest problem in America (tied with healthcare affordability).

Buoyed by survey results, we developed the 2020 Candidate Ethics Pledge – targeting Oregon candidates for U.S. Congress and Oregon Secretary of State. Almost half the candidates, representing both parties in these primary races signed the pledge. Voters can use the tool to demand ethical leadership from candidates in the general election, assess candidates’ commitments, and hold them accountable. In addition to the candidate pledge, the group intends to seek an ethics pledge for state government officials and a high school ethics curriculum, although Covid has delayed next steps. Oregon law is generally less than clear on elements of ethics such as norms of respect, candor, fairness, and, to some extent, responsibility. These are in the candidates pledge to help clarify expectations and define guardrails to guide ethical conduct. It’s time we demand public officials operate within these boundaries. Elected officials have a higher responsibility to the nation and voters elect them to lead by example.

In the upcoming election, we must ensure candidates know how important ethics is to our democracy and to voters. After the election, we must hold accountable those who are elected and seek to restore the ethical behavior that citizens expect.

Ethics is on the ballot. This is a time of difficult challenges and choices. Democracy cannot be strong if ethics is weak. We need to rally around our core values. Ask yourself what each candidate is doing to strengthen or weaken ethics. Read the pledge, are those values embraced by our representatives today?

Mike Marsh is a former state budget director, state agency deputy director, Willamette University Executive Professor, and retired Lt. Col. in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.