Code of Ethics for United States Government Service

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 In general, rules of ethical conduct for persons serving the U.S. federal government are divided into two categories: elected members of Congress, and government employees.

Note that in the context of ethical conduct, “employees” includes persons hired or appointed to work for the Legislative Branch or on the staffs of individual Senators or Representatives, as well as those executive branch employees appointed by the President of the United States.

Active duty members of the U.S. military are covered by the codes of conduct for their specific branch of the military.

Members of Congress

The ethical conduct of the elected members of Congress is prescribed by either the House Ethics Manual or the Senate Ethics Manual, as created and revised by the House and Senate committees on ethics.

In the Senate, ethics issues are handled by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. In the House, the Committee on Ethics and the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) deals with alleged ethical violations by U.S. Representatives, officers, and staff. 

Office of Congressional Ethics

Established by the House in 2008, the OCE is a non-partisan, independent body charged with investigating cases of alleged misconduct. If warranted, the OCE refers violations to the House Committee on Ethics, which has the power to impose punishment. The Committee on Ethics can also initiate ethics investigations on its own.

The OCE’s investigations are overseen by its Board of Directors composed of eight private citizens who, cannot work as lobbyists or be employed by the government and must agree not to run for elected federal office during their tenure. The Speaker of the House appoints three Board members and one alternate. The Speaker of the House and the House minority leader each appoint three voting members and one alternate to the Board. The Speaker and the minority leader each must agree on all eight appointments. The OCE’s investigative staff is made up mostly of lawyers and other professionals with expertise in ethics law and investigations. 

Executive Branch Employees

For the first 200 years of the U.S. government, each agency maintained its own code of ethical conduct. But in 1989, the President's Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform recommended that individual agency standards of conduct be replaced with a single regulation applicable to all employees of the executive branch. In response, President George H.W. Bush signed Executive Order 12674 on April 12, 1989, setting out the following fourteen basic principles of ethical conduct for executive branch personnel:

  1. Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain.
  2. Employees shall not hold financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance of duty.
  3. Employees shall not engage in financial transactions using nonpublic Government information or allow the improper use of such information to further any private interest.
  4. An employee shall not, except as permitted ... solicit or accept any gift or other items of monetary value from any person or entity seeking official action from, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by the employee's agency, or whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee's duties.
  5. Employees shall put forth honest effort in the performance of their duties.
  6. Employees shall not knowingly make unauthorized commitments or promises of any kind purporting to bind the Government.
  7. Employees shall not use public office for private gain.
  8. Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.
  9. Employees shall protect and conserve Federal property and shall not use it for other than authorized activities.
  10. Employees shall not engage in outside employment or activities, including seeking or negotiating for employment, that conflict with official Government duties and responsibilities.
  11. Employees shall disclose waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption to appropriate authorities.
  12. Employees shall satisfy in good faith their obligations as citizens, including all just financial obligations, especially those—such as Federal, State, or local taxes—that are imposed by law.
  13. Employees shall adhere to all laws and regulations that provide equal opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or handicap.
  14. Employees shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards set forth in this part. Whether particular circumstances create an appearance that the law or these standards have been violated shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts.

The federal regulation enforcing these 14 rules of conduct (as amended) is now codified and fully explained in the Code of Federal Regulations at 5 C.F.R. Part 2635.

Over the years since 1989, some agencies have created supplemental regulations that modify or supplement the 14 rules of conduct to better apply to the specific duties and responsibilities of their employees.

Established by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics provides overall leadership and oversight of the executive branch ethics program designed to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest.

The Overarching Rules of Ethical Conduct

In addition to the above 14 rules of conduct for executive branch employees, Congress, on June 27, 1980, unanimously passed a law establishing the following
general Code of Ethics for Government Service. Signed by President Jimmy Carter on July 3, 1980, Public Law 96-303 requires that, “Any person in Government service should:”

  • Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government department.
  • Uphold the Constitution, laws, and regulations of the United States and of all governments therein and never be a party to their evasion.
  • Give a full day's labor for a full day's pay; giving earnest effort and best thought to the performance of duties.
  • Seek to find and employ more efficient and economical ways of getting tasks accomplished.
  • Never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not; and never accept, for himself or herself or for family members, favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of governmental duties.
  • Make no private promises of any kind binding upon the duties of the office, since a Government employee has no private word which can be binding on public duty.
  • Engage in no business with the Government, either directly or indirectly, which is inconsistent with the conscientious performance of governmental duties.
  • Never use any information gained confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means of making private profit.
  • Expose corruption wherever discovered.
  • Uphold these principles, ever conscious that public office is a public trust.

Is There a Presidential Code of Ethics?

While the elected members of Congress have chosen to adopt their own code of ethics, the President of the United States, as an elected rather than hired or appointed representatives of the people, is not subject to any specific statute or rule governing his or her ethical conduct. While they are subject to a civil suit and criminal prosecution for violations of common laws, presidents are generally immune from punishment for conduct related to their official acts. In other words, presidents are generally free to lie or misrepresent facts, as long as they do not intentionally defame any specific person or persons in doing so.

In fact, the only practical remedies to unethical conduct on the part of the president are the constant vigilance of a well-informed public, congressional oversight, and ultimately the threat of impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

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Longley, Robert. "Code of Ethics for United States Government Service." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). Code of Ethics for United States Government Service. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Code of Ethics for United States Government Service." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).