Senatores boni viri, senatus mala bestia? Nine simple ways to improve parliamentary ethics

Article by Alessandro Zerbini | Illustration by Chiara Zilioli

The Latins had catchy wisdom pills for everything. One of the most bizarre of these sayings went, ‘senatores boni viri, senatus mala bestia’. In modern-day English, this quote roughly translates into a curious clarification: senators are good people, it is the senate that is a mean beast. The wit behind these words reasons that, individually, the components of any group are good people, but they are bound to lose that connotation once they are clustered together and act jointly.

Given politics’ bad reputation, reading the blunt statement, ‘senators are good people’ might sound strange or naive to many. After all, politicians do not carry out the most esteemed or trusted profession, and it is not usually bakers or engineers that routinely become the centre of outrageous scandals. Indeed, one would be excused for thinking that not all Members of Parliament are good and honest individuals, let alone when moved by group dynamics.

Luckily, there is plenty of room for improvement and a great deal of ways to ensure that parliamentary ethics is not a contradiction in terms. Let’s take a look at a few simple ideas to improve the behaviour of our elected representatives.

1. Prevent conflicts of interest

A conflict of interest occurs whenever a public official’s performance of their duties can be improperly influenced by their private interest. Ideally, MPs should not be put in a position where they have to choose between acting in the public’s interest or doing their biddings, and several ways exist to address this risk.

For instance, in the UK, legislators are legally required to disclose the existence of potential conflicts of interest, although they can still take part in the deliberations regarding them. Conversely, in Sweden, MPs cannot legally participate in meetings regarding a matter which personally concerns themselves or a close associate.

2. Forbid gifts above a certain value

In carrying out their mandate, MPs are bound to receive gifts, some better intentioned than others. Nonetheless, it is very important that legislators are not influenced by those luxurious presents, coveted tickets or free vacations. To prevent that, several ethics codes dictate that parliamentarians must declare all gifts above a certain value, and sometimes even hand them over to parliament for sale.

3. Disclose information on who influences legislation, how and why

In a democracy, interest groups are a significant part of the game. However, lobbying can sometimes result in excessively biased legislation that is not in the general public’s interest. To avoid similar scenarios, several parliaments have introduced mandatory registries for lobbyists, publishing information on the organized interests legally authorized to interact with elected representatives.

In this instance, Poland went even further by requiring professional lobbyists to provide a declaration describing the interest they are paid to defend when reaching out to public bodies, so that the public can have a better understanding on who is behind a piece of legislation (i.e. the legislative footprint).1

4. Reorganize and monitor MPs’ expenses

In most countries, besides collecting a monthly salary, MPs are entitled to additional allowances to cover expenditures related to their mandate, such as travel costs or personal assistants. For the system to inspire trust, it is fundamental that the financial treatment of legislators is made transparent, and that allowances are collectible only to cover expenditures actually incurred in.

5. Verify and publish MPs’ declarations of interest

For the sake of transparency, elected representatives from several countries are required to submit for publication a periodical declaration stating their previous and current professional commitments, their sources of income, and their assets and liabilities.

Proper verification of the information contained in these documents is needed to ensure that all suspicious changes affecting a legislator’s financial position are brought to light for public scrutiny.

6. Close revolving doors

The term “revolving doors” describes the movement of people between the public and the private sector. If left unregulated, this seemingly normal practice could result in the corruption of MPs’ behaviour in exchange for profitable employment after the term is over.

To prevent this phenomenon, the European Commission has introduced a system coupling two-year scrutiny periods with a transitional allowance. By doing so, the Commission aims at discouraging former Commissioners from taking up jobs in sectors previously under their regulatory responsibility right after the end of their mandate.

7. Sanction misbehaviour

As in most cases, rules alone may not suffice to inspire the required compliance. Sometimes, to ensure that MPs respect ethical principles, they must know that misbehaviour will be sanctioned. Generally speaking, there are three forms of sanctioning that can be used individually or jointly: stigmatization, political sanctions and economic sanctions.

In the German Bundestag, the lighter forms of enforcement consist in private reprimands and, if the misbehaviour continues, in official statements by the chamber’s Bureau “naming and shaming” the MP in question. On the other hand, in Luxembourg, repeated violations of the rules can lead to serious political consequences, such as being excluded from committee meetings, not being allowed to take up official roles, or being forbidden from participating in official delegations. Finally, in France, rule-breaking behaviour can also result in economic sanctions, such as forfeiting half of an MP’s monthly salary.

8. Interact with your MPs

Each one of us lives in a constituency that elects a certain number of MPs. Unfortunately, we often get carried away by our daily routines and forget about those people sitting in the capital on our behalf. An easy way to give our little contribution to the improvement of politics is to stay up-to-date with what our elected representatives are doing. Follow them on social media, interact with their posts and raise issues that you are passionate about. Don’t forget that it is in your mutual interest to have an engaging relationship with one another.

9. Support journalism

At times, politics can get extremely technical, and we all know that the devil is in the detail. This is why we need brave, prepared journalists to translate for us the messy compromises made in the “room where it happens” and, if needed, sound the alarm. If you can’t afford to buy a subscription for a newspaper, try and find other ways to support quality journalism.

1 It must be noted that the Polish solution is not entirely effective. Indeed, in Poland, lobbying normally takes place informally and through MPs, who are not required to apply the law in question.

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