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May 12, 2004

Lure of jobs, not voters, keep politicians honest

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Politicians' concern about reputations, not elections, keeps them honest, says a Purdue University political scientist.

Glenn Parker
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"Politicians' actions cannot be effectively policed by voters," says Glenn R. Parker, Distinguished Professor of Political Science. "But my research shows that out of concern for their reputations, we can expect most politicians to police their own behavior and refrain from engaging in activities for private gain at the expense of the voters."

Parker's research results are published in "Self-Policing in Politics: The Political Economy of Reputational Controls on Politicians." The book, $35, was published by Princeton University Press and can be ordered through the press. Parker's analysis draws on public opinion based in congressional constituencies and collected by the University of Michigan's national election study surveys between 1978 and 1994.

"Aside from the electoral benefit, members of Congress with reputations for trustworthiness are able to secure a prestigious post-political job," Parker says. "This post-elective employment incentive ensures their honesty throughout their terms of office. Unfortunately, this incentive for honesty is less relevant to senators and presidents, who usually are guaranteed posh jobs after they leave office."

Reputations are important in the political marketplace, just as in the economic market, because they serve as low-cost signals of product quality, says Parker, who sees parallels between the economic nature of the business firm and behaviors of politicians. From this point of view, reputations provide politicians with future earnings in the same sense as they do for businesses. For businesses, it is a stream of future customers; for politicians, it is re-election and high-profile jobs in the private sector or in politics upon exiting office. Neither businesses nor politicians will cheat their customers if the gains from being reputable are greater than those obtained through cheating, Parker says. Information about reputations is disseminated through the media, gossip and people's personal experiences with politicians.

Parker says many congressmen are motivated to invest in their reputations so they can secure an attractive job, such as a top-level executive position or director of a foundation, after they leave office. However, there are not enough of these prestigious jobs, and only about one-third of those politicians who are considered highly trustworthy are rewarded with such jobs. Therefore, a major incentive for honesty in politics faces obstacles due to the shortage of attractive employment opportunities for former legislators.

"Nonetheless, legislators avoid engaging in deceiving, self-serving activities because they fear loss of the investments they have made in their political careers, and this threat, along with the benefits of electoral safety and attractive post-elective employment, encourages them to police their own actions," Parker says.

Unethical or quasi-ethical behavior in Congress is difficult for constituents to control because of the high costs involved in monitoring legislators' activities, many of which are hidden from view, like foreign junkets, lax voting attendance, bouncing checks at the House bank and collecting an unreasonably high fee from interest groups for speaking engagements. There are laws preventing some of this behavior, but politicians will find loopholes, Parker says. And research also shows that voters are lenient with scandalous politicians. More than two-thirds of congressional candidates who are accused of corruption and run in general elections are re-elected, he says.

While trustworthy legislators are rewarded with electoral security and attractive post-elective employment, not just well-paying jobs, sometimes constituents are less appreciative of their trustworthy politicians. For instance, there is little difference in the likelihood of electoral defeat for the most and least trusted legislators. Parkers says the post-elective employment benefit for honesty in politics may be more valuable in controlling unethical and dishonest behavior than the electoral incentive.

"This shows we cannot rely on elections to reward trustworthy politicians or prevent unethical behavior," he says.

Parker also is the author of "Congress and the Rent-Seeking Society" and "Institutional Change, Discretion and the Making of Modern Congress: An Economic Interpretation." Both of these books have been previously published by the University of Michigan Press.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Glenn Parker, (765) 494-4161, parker5@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Review copies of the books are available by contacting Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu.

PHOTO CAPTION:
Politicians' concern about reputation, not elections, keeps them honest, says Glenn R. Parker, Distinguished Professor of Political Science. Parker's research shows that most politicians will police their own behavior and refrain from engaging in activities for private gain out of concern for their reputations. His research results are in the book "Self-Policing in Politics: The Political Economy of Reputational Controls on Politicians." The book, $35, was published by Princeton University Press. Parker's analysis draws on public opinion based in congressional constituencies and collected by the University of Michigan's national election study surveys between 1978 and 1994. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at http://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/+2004/parker-book.jpg


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