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Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom.

TOLCHIN, MARTIN, & TOLOHIN, SUSAN J. Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001. Pp. xiii + 201. ISBN 0- 8133-6760-3

Congress continues to provide clear examples of a number of principles of behavior analysis. (For an earlier description of aspects of Congress in behavior analytic terms, see Lamal & Greenspoon, 1992). This is illustrated in the Tolchins' description of congressional ethics and their detailed account of different kinds of ethical lapses and issues that have confronted Congress in recent years. The authors also provide examples of congressional misbehavior from the 18th century, the Joseph McCarthy era, and into the 1960s.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the Tolchins maintain that members of Congress "are more honest and more ethical today than ever before" (p. ix). It is not that they are inherently better people. Rather, current contingencies increase the likelihood that at least blatantly unethical behavior is avoided. Members' behavior is more closely rule-governed because the consequences of unethical behavior can be sufficiently punishing to the transgressor. And particularly in a time of extreme partisanship in Congress the ethics process is inherently political.

The "ethics wars" of the 1980s and 1990s continue to plague Congress. And all of them revolve around such putative positive reinforcers as money, power, and sex, or more precisely, members' behaviors in pursuit of those consequences. The partisan nature of the ethical arena is exemplified by the cases of two Speakers of the House of Representatives, Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia). Then an obscure backbencher, Gingrich in 1987 accused the then-Speaker Wright of 69 ethics violations. As the negative publicity mounted, Democratic elders persuaded Wright to resign from the House. The consequence for Gingrich was a significant boost in his trajectory to the speakership, surely a positive reinforcer for him. But then it was Gingrich's turn to be punished as a result of the partisan approach to ethics. As a result of charges of ethics violations and after a bruising, partisan House battle in 1997, the House voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich and also levied a $300,000 fine against him. Gingrich resigned from the speakership and in 1998 gave up this congressional seat.

The Tolchins do not emphasize it, but a fundamental cause of much of congressional wrongdoing is members' pursuit of reelection; again, a consequence that can reasonably be described as highly positively reinforcing to most members. And the consequence of reelection depends upon raising large amounts of campaign funds and working on behalf of constituents, particularly constituents who can provide large amounts of campaign money. The Tolchins provide examples of House members' unethical behavior with respect to campaign funds and Elizabeth Drew (1999) has described a campaign finance system that is out of control and that Congress refuses to reform. From a behavior analytic point of view it is clear why the system has not been reformed--it reinforces those who maintain it with their reelection.

But one person's unethical behavior is another's constituent service. Members of Congress take service to constituents very seriously, and it can take many forms, from getting a delayed Social Security check mailed, to obtaining federal funding for the establishment or maintenance of civilian or military agencies in the member's district or state, to obtaining tax breaks for businesses. According to the Tolchins, the harshest ethical conflicts today revolve around the meaning of constituent service. "Constituent service is engraved into the job description of a member of Congress, and politicians who forget it often find themselves voted out of offices" (p. 49). An extremely powerful contingency. The Tolchins describe the Abscam investigation of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the Keating savings and loan case of the early 1990s as classic examples of unethical behavior that the accused maintained were just instances of constituent service. The statutes still do not define what differentiates acceptance of bribes from legitimate constituent service, and the statutes concerned with conflicts of interest are similarly unclear. Thus rule-governed behavior can take various forms when the rules are vague.

Another factor working against ethical rule-governed behavior is Congress's reluctance to discipline its members. The Constitution gives Congress sole authority to discipline its members, but as the Tolchins make clear, it has consistently failed to do so. And in fact, the House and Senate Ethics Committees in the last couple of years have moved to limit ethics investigations further by restricting the right of those who complain about unethical behavior. What is most important for members to avoid is bringing disgrace on Congress. According to the Tolchins, the only reliable rule of thumb as to whether Congress will discipline its members appears to be public reaction to an infraction. The severity of the punishment depends on exactly how much the individual in question has disgraced the institution, for given their druthers, lawmakers would much rather sweep ethics issues under the rug" (p. 73). It is reasonable to surmise that this state of affairs is caused by members' concern with reelection. If voters a ssociate their senator or representative with a group that elicits a negative emotional reaction, that member may suffer decisively on election day.

Although the public's opinion of Congress continues to decline, according to the Tolchins, incumbents are overwhelmingly reelected. This paradox is resolved when one considers the positive reinforcers that incumbents are able to provide their constituents ("constituent service" again) as well as the large campaign finance chests they are able to accumulate during their incumbency, as groups and individuals reinforce them for past votes and prompt future favorable treatment.

When describing and interpreting the behaviors of groups in society one must be aware of the danger of oversimplifying. At the same time, however, nothing that is described in Glass Houses comes as a surprise to a behavior analyst.


Drew, Elizabeth. (1999). The corruption of American politics: What went wrong and why. Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane Press.

Lamal, P. A., & Greenspoon, J. (1992). Congressional metacontingencies. Behavior and Social issues, 2, 71-81.
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Author:Lamal, P.A.
Publication:The Psychological Record
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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