The Real Ethics Debate

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

“Ethics!?” roars Ralph Nader. “Where does Mother Jones get off using a piddly-ass beltway word like ethics? Corruption is the issue. Ask the average person outside of Washington ‘Why are you dismayed with Congress?’, and they’re not gonna say, ‘Well, there’s a problem with ethics.’ They’re gonna say: ‘These guys are in the pocket of the rich, the big corporations, the fat cats. They don’t care about me.”‘

Nader charges that Congress–Democrats and Republicans alike–isn’t interested in real ethics reforms that would lessen the power of moneyed interests on the Hill. And he seems to have a handle on public opinion. A recent Harris poll found that eight in ten adults believe “individuals, groups, and corporations which contribute to political campaigns end up having too much influence over the public officials to whose campaigns they contribute.” Most considered “taking money in return for political favors” the worst ethical violation a politician could commit; only 4 percent considered extramarital sex more serious.

Suddenly, in the wake of recent scandals, clean-government groups like Common Cause, Citizens Against PACS, and the Nader-founded Public Citizen are gaining momentum. While their agendas overlap quite a bit (Newt Gingrich dismisses elements of all as “socialist”), Public Citizen’s is the most aggressively democratic with a small “d.” Here are the basics:

  • Limit overall spending and provide partial public financing. Candidates who voluntarily agree to establish spending limits and raise a threshold amount of money from small contributions would receive funds from voluntary taxpayer checkoffs. Spending caps would guarantee that campaign spending does not reach obscene levels. just as important as these ceilings is the floor: public financing would guarantee that any major party candidate could be heard even without access to big money.
  • Curtail the role of PACs. At present, PACs can give $10,000 to a congressional candidate during an election cycle. Their influence is actually even greater, since similar PACs run in packs, giving en masse to favored candidates. PAC donations during an election cycle would be limited to $3,000 or less under the Public Citizen plan. Also, a limit would be placed on an aggregate amount a candidate can receive from all PACs during an election cycle-$125,000 for House races and up to $1.5 million for Senate contests.
  • Guarantee television and radio time for candidates. As a condition of their right to broadcast over the public airwaves, TV stations would be required to provide a limited amount of free airtime to qualified candidates.
  • Ban honoraria. Members of Congress and their staff would no longer be allowed to take speaking fees and free trips from special-interest groups.

Campaign spending limits and public financing are the most important of these reforms, ones Congress is least likely to impose on itself, says Michael Waldman, director of Congress Watch, a division of Public Citizen. With a re-election rate of 99 percent, members have little incentive to change the present system. Newt Gingrich, ever ready with a partisan blast, says the Democrats, in their drive to preserve a majority, “have rigged the game better than Noriega.” Would he, then, limit campaign spending? “That’s the opposite of a good reform. The fact is, in almost any other business in America we spend vastly more money, trying to communicate with the American people than we do in campaigns. Look at the cost of advertising beer.” Eliminate honoraria, then? Gingrich dismisses that as “anti-free enterprise, anti-private market. My speeches are frankly worth $2,000. If I were a private consultant I would make a lot more.” In fact, Gingrich thinks members of Congress should have more time off to make money giving speeches. He suggests, “You may want to make rules that no association or companies doing business with the committees I serve on could have me give a speech for money, [and] rules that say I have to give a real speech.”

Gingrich’s own reform agenda contains proposals designed to weaken the incumbent’s advantage including abolishing congressional junk mail, requiring candidates to start campaign funds from scratch every two years, limiting PAC money, and requiring that 50 percent of direct contributions come from the member’s own district. “If anybody spends over $100,000 out of their own pocket, there would be no contribution limits to the other candidate, which is an explicitly anti-rich people provision,” Gingrich says. At the same time, he would increase the amount of money individuals and businesses could give to parties, and the amount parties could then funnel into races. “That’s hardly a moneyed-interest set of conditions,” declares Gingrich.

Michael Waldman begs to differ. “Republicans don’t like public financing, because the way they’ve traditionally won is to outspend Democratic incumbents. They say no PACs, but they also support a vastly increased ability to channel money to parties from rich people, and that’s going to be Republicans.”

While Gingrich and his peers try to figure out how to reform Congress without challenging their own power bases, cynicism spreads. Philip Stern, co-chair of Citizens Against PACs and author of The Best Congress Money Can Buy, says people vote less and less because they live in “an America where money power talks louder than people power. That leads to a sense of futility. The ethics debate is not really about ethics. It’s about democratic representation.”

Ralph Nader believes that as the Democratic party becomes increasingly reliant on big money, it abandons its original bedrock of poor and working-class voters. If Democrats can ensure incumbency by courting PACs, there’s little incentive to mount voter registration drives. “Over 350 districts don’t have a competitive second party getting more than 30 percent of the vote. In safe districts there’s no interest in the poor voting,” says Nader, adding, “TV is the new precinct. The two parties are skeletons beaming electronic ads at one another.” While Gingrich wants to strengthen the fund-raising power of the parties, Nader wants to hold them accountable. The only way to unseat entrenched, money-backed politicians, he says, is with “a new kind of political movement that can fluctuate strategically, without any adherence to party labels.”

In the meantime, don’t look to Newt Gingrich as a shining example of even his own proposed reforms. Not only did he receive $265,697 in PAC money for his 1988 re-election campaign, he’s one of Congress’s highest spenders on junk mail. Naturally, he also pocketed close to the limit, $26,800 of $26,850, allowed per year in honoraria. “The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting money from private industry or private sources is essentially a socialist argument,” explains Gingrich.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.