Legislative Ethics Reform Spans Centuries

Posted February 23, 2007 at 3:33pm

Who would have guessed that a movie chronicling the passage of legislation in early 19th-century Britain could offer America’s Congress a timely and much-needed refresher course on political ethics, lobbying reform and the power of the people?

The profile of abolitionist William Wilberforce powerfully chronicled in “Amazing Grace” does just that. The film offers lessons for leadership across the political, geographic and ideological spectrums.

First and foremost, the movie reminds us that understanding the meaning of integrity isn’t limited to one’s position, power, tenure or party. Wilberforce, at age 30, demonstrates that even young rookies can model courageous leadership and inspire seasoned veterans. His life provides a timely reminder for us in Washington, D.C., that ethical personal actions speak louder than the most savvy press statements or floor speeches.

The film reminds us that true leadership starts with humility and a frank look in the mirror. When confronted with the seemingly impossible challenge to pass anti-slavery legislation in an unfavorable political environment, Wilberforce tells a fellow Parliament member, “I don’t believe that you and I would change things: I would first change myself.”

“Amazing Grace” realistically portrays the burden of leadership, yet it will revitalize those honest public servants who have come to Washington for the right reasons. Standing on principle is not always convenient, and it is not always popular. When you stand on principle, you sometimes stand alone. But Wilberforce reminds us that, in the end, personal integrity and genuine commitment can win over the respect of even the most vicious foes.

The film shows that some principles are worth fighting for, even to your own political detriment. “Amazing Grace” reminds us that even well-intentioned allies in our own political parties may need a good reality check and challenge from time to time. Tenure and political position do not exempt anyone from the laws of basic integrity and the ultimate power of the people and the ballot box.

The Wilberforce portrayal reminds us of the value of political persistence (a virtue not unfamiliar to those who continue to work for the implementation of truly meaningful and loophole-free lobbying and ethics reform). It took Wilberforce 20 years to achieve success. What would have been the consequences if the unpopular Wilberforce, standing in the wake of years of failure, had not been persuaded to give it just one more try?

The movie’s producers seemed creatively in tune to the heartbeat of the timely, albeit timeless issues of lobbying gift and travel dilemmas. Wilberforce boldly converts a recreational seaside junket into an unpleasant but educational “fact-finding” trip, which surprisingly presents the lawmakers and their spouses with the grim realities of a slave ship.

The movie even provides a few insights for lobbying. We see the dramatic implications of a “technical amendment” with more than technical consequences. The film reminds lobbyists that political integrity and long-term victory involves remembering and respecting the ultimate power and wishes of the people.

The abolitionist lobbyists eventually win in Parliament because they recognize this and engage the culture to enlighten popular opinion. They know that information is power, and they invest the necessary time in documenting relevant facts and practical examples on the substance of the issue. Ultimately, “right” turns into “might” and this power overcomes the special interests of those members who are personally invested in the slave trade. The lobbyists were not content to simply issue press releases — to achieve success, they had to be engaged with the culture and provide compelling evidence for their cause.

The House and Senate have passed ethics reforms that embraced ethics classes for Members and staff complete with annual certification requirements. Bravo! Now perhaps the ethics committees should rent out a Union Station theater and require Congressional attendance at “Amazing Grace” as part of the effort. In less than two hours, the movie offers a political ethics refresher course and the renewal of purpose that all of political Washington so desperately needs.

Deanna R. Gelak is president of Working for the Future and served two terms as president of the American League of Lobbyists.