Holding the Government Accountable

Collective Responsibility: Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Government

The national conversation about ethics in government needs to change radically
Danielle Brian speaks at St. John's Espiscopal Church, also known as "the church of the presidents," in Washington D.C. on December 9, 2018. (Photo: POGO)

On December 9, 2018, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian spoke at the historic St. John’s Church, in Lafayette Square, in Washington, DC. Her remarks have been edited slightly for clarity.

Listen to the Remarks

Press play to listen to POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian's remarks on ethics in government, and the question & answer session that followed.

It is an honor to have been invited to join you all here this morning. As someone who fights for a more ethical federal government, I couldn’t imagine a more thrilling opportunity than to be with all of you in this historic church, discussing this very subject. I’ve been with my organization, the Project On Government Oversight, or POGO, for nearly 30 years. We were created in 1981 by Pentagon whistleblowers concerned about wasteful spending and weapon systems that didn’t work and that were not safe for the men and women we send to war. But what we soon found was that such problems were not unique to the Department of Defense, and we expanded our focus. Since then, POGO has worked to uphold basic constitutional principles by demanding a more ethical, accountable, and effective federal government.

First, I am genuinely nonpartisan. I do not believe either party has a monopoly on ethics—either in upholding them or in violating them. Ideally, each party and every politician should believe in public service that benefits our citizens, and should reject the temptation to use any office for personal or private gain. And the vast majority of our public servants are committed to doing exactly that: serving the public. But the tendency to abuse power is endemic.

If we expect accountability from government, then shaping a favorable environment for reform is our collective responsibility.

Ethics in government goes beyond what some consider to be nitpicking rules. Financial disclosures, avoiding conflicts of interest, acting impartially, being truthful and honest are systems and values in place to increase the public’s confidence in the integrity of government. But my goal is not to increase people’s trust in government. My goal is to have a government worthy of that trust. As our board member Morton Mintz, whom some of you might remember as a legendary Washington Post reporter, taught me, simply telling the truth about your wrongdoing is not tantamount to being ethical.

To evaluate ethical conduct, I ask you to consider not simply the acts of individuals in government, but also how those individuals make up the systems that form our government. How does our government represent our interests, both at home and abroad? In this talk, I will push you to go beyond your preconceived notions about ethics to see the toll unethical behavior by government officials takes on our society. Fundamentally, does our government operate in the best image that our founding fathers expected of us when they established the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…

The year after I graduated from Smith College, I was able to sit on the college’s Board of Trustees. It was the mid-1980s and big institutions were struggling with whether and how to deal with the South African apartheid regime. The Smith student body took over College Hall in an act of civil disobedience to demonstrate to the trustees how seriously they needed our college to take an ethical stand and stop investing their tuition dollars in that racist government’s economy. I came back to campus to be the trustee emissary to those committed students.

Danielle Brian outside St. John's Church, also known as "the church of the presidents," outside the White House in Washington, DC, on Sunday, December 9, 2018.
(Photo: POGO)

I will never forget a conversation I had with a fellow trustee one night during the crisis. He was a Reagan appointee at the time, and he reflected the prevailing common wisdom from Washington. I raised the obvious arguments of how it was important that the United States not be on the wrong side of history, and that these students represented the best values that our country was founded on. Of course, history has proven the students right. But at the time, he scolded me and told me that the students and I didn’t understand that it was in our national security interests to support the South African government because of the essential mineral resources unique to that country.

I challenged him to explain how it could possibly be in our national security interest to prop up a racist government that in no way reflected our democratic values. And do you know what? He literally had no answer. I don’t know if I changed his mind that day, but after a few months, the board reconvened and voted to fully divest from South African investments. Smith was part of a wave of private institutions across the country that decided to put their ethical principles above potential financial gain. As a 23-year-old I learned that conventional wisdom is sometimes dead wrong. And that it is sometimes necessary to remind ourselves what really matters.

But the U.S. government’s policies toward South Africa did not change without being pushed by the private institutions that led the way. We cannot wait for our government to reflect our values. We have to take the lead. A similar opportunity has recently presented itself with our government placing arms sales above human life. What will the government do in this new instance? What will we do to take the lead?

Over the past half-century, Washington has gradually normalized, and even legalized, flatly unethical behavior. The use of money by individuals and organizations to skew public policy away from the common good toward private interest is corrupt.

It is also largely legal. Our public policy is increasingly designed to benefit the already wealthy and politically powerful at the expense of those who can’t afford to hire lobbyists, and who are increasingly being left behind by our policymakers. Legalized corruption has seeped into every corner of government—from the undue influence of campaign finance, to the revolving door between the private sector and the government and back, to other types of influence-peddling.

One of the eulogists for President Bush this week was former Senator Alan Simpson. His famous wit is helpful for us today, in his reflection on what has become, I fear, the typical Washington approach to ethics.

His take was, “Did you know that quid pro quo is Latin for ‘Holy cow, what a coincidence!’?” (I cleaned that up a bit since we are in a church.)

We are living in extraordinarily troubling times. The Trump era’s most obvious and glaring new challenge to ethics is the self-dealing culture of conspicuous consumption and CEO-style opulence that has settled into Washington. To see public servants spending our tax dollars on private jets, $31,000 dining sets and $43,000 soundproof booths for their offices is distasteful, but in truth our existing laws and rules largely prohibit these excesses. But as I have said, far more important forms of self-enrichment and self-dealing are shockingly legal.

The national conversation about ethics in government needs to change radically.

Even if every public official in Washington today followed every ethics rule, I would argue that we still would not have an adequately ethical government as long as public officials are denying our people their unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is a point former George W. Bush ethics advisor Richard Painter made to me early in this administration, and it really stuck with me: ethics are more than check-the-box exercises; they are how we show our commitment to our values.

What do we see when we look at government today through the lens of ethics?

We see local police regularly shooting unarmed people of color, and our criminal justice system imprisoning people with life sentences—even executing them—without adequate access to legal representation or due process, as is required by our Constitution. We witness daily in the news our Border Patrol officers separating families at the border. These unethical abuses of power are only becoming more prevalent with the backdrop of a White House that remains silent as hate crimes increase, in some places by more than 40 percent.

How do our values inform the choices made through our budgeting process, which is perhaps the clearest expression of our policy priorities? We can see the results of corruption in those priorities, where half of the money appropriated by Congress is spent on the Department of Defense, the agency responsible for fighting our seemingly endless wars with no accountability for outcomes or spending. How does this happen?

Here is a clue: Last month, POGO released a database of the hundreds of people who passed through the revolving door from the Pentagon to defense contractors. Nearly 90 percent of those people had become industry lobbyists.

Those who defend the practice claim their expertise in national security means they can only work in this sector, but the roles they took on are as influence-peddlers among their former government colleagues. As someone who was mentored by Pentagon whistleblowers while I was a young intern in Washington, even I was shocked to discover the time Congress transferred funds from buying much-needed night-vision goggles and scopes for the troops in order to buy overpriced and dangerous aircraft, after heavy lobbying by the manufacturer. While lobbyists were influencing Congress, the troops literally had to pay for their gear out of their own pockets. And we now hear senior policy-makers suggesting deep cuts to our safety net of Social Security and Medicare in order to pay for further defense outlays. We must ask ourselves, are these our country’s values?

Such decisions tell us the truth about our country, and there are many other examples. Our policies continue to unduly benefit other powerful sectors of the economy, such as the extractive industries, again without consideration for the public costs—to our health, economic impact, or global survival. Just this week, my organization exposed how the oil and gas industry convinced the Interior Department to roll back post-Deepwater Horizon safety standards, jeopardizing the lives of workers, the environment, the economy, and even industry’s own bottom lines. Let’s not forget that the Deepwater oil spill killed 11 people, injured 17, spilled the equivalent of over 21 Exxon Valdez-sized spills, and cost BP over $65 billion.

The opioid crisis has also been exacerbated by the same legalized corruption. Undue pharmaceutical industry influence over FDA [Food and Drug Administration] advisory committees puts unsafe drugs on the market. The revolving door between the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and giant drug companies allows former DEA agents to teach drug companies how not to get caught flouting the law. As a result, in 2017 nearly 30,000 people died from overdoses from synthetic opioids. We have turned the government’s public safety role on its head. To return to a point I made earlier, insistence on ethical public service is not nitpicking: war, environmental catastrophe, and mass addiction are not trivial issues.

Sometimes it is doing nothing at all that facilitates unethical behavior. Reasonable conversations about gun safety and the Second Amendment are stifled because of deference to campaign contributions from the NRA [National Rifle Association]. The cost to public health caused by inaction is obvious. When facing evil, inaction is fundamentally unethical—whether it is remaining silent as our tax dollars support atrocities abroad, such as in Yemen, or minimizing the gruesome murder of a journalist as the reasonable cost of doing business. Doesn’t that false choice sound a lot like the man who told me apartheid was the price we had to pay? When personal private and political gain motivate public policy more than advancing the common good, ethical behavior and standards are seen as mere obstacles to progress rather than as preconditions for governing.

And at the individual level, one of the more frequent ethical dilemmas I work with is helping people decide whether to say something about wrongdoing that they have witnessed, thereby putting their career and possibly much more at risk. My organization was created by an Air Force whistleblower, Ernie Fitzgerald, who was on Nixon’s enemies list because of his truth-telling. But the dilemma of the whistleblower is perennial. The Obama Administration repeatedly abused its power under the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers. Since I began this work years ago, public perceptions have changed. We are more likely to see whistleblowers as morally courageous heroes than as “narcs” and snitches. That is a positive trend, but it is still far too common that the government’s impulse is to retaliate and silence the truth-teller. I suspect everyone in this room has, or knows someone who has, faced the decision of whether or not to stand up to wrongdoing, and understands how grave the consequences can be if inadequate protection is afforded the person who steps forward.

But protection is not the only obstacle. I have seen firsthand the many reasons people are afraid to cross the Rubicon. Most remain silent, not because they are afraid of retaliation, but because they have little faith that coming forward will solve the problem. If potential truth-tellers had more confidence that their ethical resistance would matter, more would come forward. If we expect accountability from government, then shaping a favorable environment for reform is our collective responsibility.

This new era did not appear out of thin air. It is, in a very real way, a product of our own inaction as citizens. We have become complacent and cynical, and assume that a certain level of corruption is natural or inevitable in American government—that it can be winked at. We got here by accepting far less from our leadership than an active citizenry would tolerate. Too often, we turn a blind eye to the self-interested or amoral behavior of candidates and officials from our own party in order to advance a political agenda. And when we do, we are all making the decision that ethical behavior is not an essential feature of our social contract. We are accepting the notion that we won’t hold people accountable for ethical failures because ethics really aren’t as important as everything else. Maybe it’s that litmus-test issue that we care most about, or it is blind political party loyalty. But somewhere along the line, we have come to accept the notion that a person taking an ethical stand is quaint and irrelevant to modern life, relegated to the fictional Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Government can be a force for good, but patterns of bad behavior by individual bad actors result in a breakdown of the entire institution.

Where do we go from here? How do we return to a path toward that more perfect union?

Demonizing people we disagree with isn’t the answer. And pursuing bipartisanship as a virtue unto itself is also a false path. But we will not be able to advance to a genuinely ethical government until we reach beyond our small, comfortable tribes. Cable news, social media, and the political parties themselves benefit from the divisiveness. They benefit most when we hate each other; they are growing their audiences and membership and making money off our hate. We must be more discerning about those institutions that are playing such a large role in undermining integrity in government. We need to hold all our elected, appointed, and career government officials accountable for meeting a higher ethical standard. Let us not give up on them. Let us instead reward those people who demonstrate that they regard public service as a privilege that demands integrity with our loyalty and support.

This congregation is uniquely situated to be moral leaders. The national conversation about ethics in government needs to change radically. In order to make this change, it will require us all to remain active beyond simply voting. We need to start recognizing and articulating ethical violations as corrupt behavior, and hold those actors accountable by withholding our business, votes, or public legitimacy.

We have only started to see scrutiny of police departments around the country, now that some officers who have killed innocent citizens are going to jail for it. That is real accountability, and it gives us a reason to begin to trust those institutions. We need to hold our national public officials accountable as well. This will require paying attention to our leaders while they are in office: Who are they really serving? Do they embody our ethical standards? We need to become more active citizens between elections.

You voted for them. Now you need to pay attention to what they do.

Without serious reform and engagement from more citizens, our modern democracy will not—cannot—advance our country to becoming that more perfect union for all Americans. We need to remember the lesson learned from the anti-apartheid fights. Our government did not lead. Our government followed the lead of private institutions—colleges and universities, houses of worship, civil society organizations, even some businesses—demanding that their investments and their tax dollars not be spent on evil. Those people did not act alone.

They joined together through various organizations to make their voices heard. You are not alone; we can do the same together. One phone call might not have an impact, but ten phone calls can. One email may not get the attention of an elected official, but 50 can. Join those institutions and organizations that reflect your values, and you can make your voice heard.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.”

We all need to more actively apply our ethical values to our daily lives, to the news, to our Washington community, and choose to do good. Only then will our government follow.

Thank you.