Conflict Of Interest Regulation in the Federal Service: A Study in Law, Public Policy and Administration

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


David H. Rosenbloom


Misuse of Government positions, Public confidence in Government, Conflict-of-interest reform

Subject Categories

Public Administration


The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the evolution of the Executive Branch program for the regulation of financial conflicts of interest in the Federal service. The problem of maintaining public confidence in the integrity of public officials is older than the twentieth century and the appearance of the administrative and regulatory states. Yet, the unusual attention to the prevention of financial conflicts of interest in Government, as a major public policy issue, is a recent phenomenon. Conflict-of-interest prevention has taken on unprecedented importance as a way to protect the impartiality of decision-making processes in Government.

The principal argument of the dissertation is that the failure to recognize the reasons for adopting conflict-of-interest prohibitions during the nineteenth century has distorted the development of the modern Executive Branch prevention program. Public policy arguments over conflict-of-interest prevention today--to tighten restrictions and to refine methods of identifying actual conflicts and the appearance of conflicts of interest--differ greatly from those of the nineteenth century. The growing stress on regulation parallels the growing power of Government to affect every aspect of American life.

The procedure of the dissertation is to make an historical analysis of the stages of conflict-of-interest reform and so to identify the forces--the roles played by Congress, by Presidential Administrations, by representatives of public interest and professional groups, and by the press--that contributed to a heightened awareness of financial conflicts of interest in American politics.

The term conflict of interest is used to designate a spectrum of prohibitions serving the symbolic purpose of deflecting charges of the misuse of Government positions for personal financial gain and to dispel doubts of the impartiality of official action. In this symbolic context, wrongdoing is equated with weakening public confidence in Government.

The danger, however, is that concern over possible damage to public confidence tends to drive symbolic regulation beyond reason, in terms of prohibited activities and penalties for violations. Then, disruptions caused by unreasonably harsh provisions undermine the regulatory program.

The major conclusion of the dissertation is that the undirected evolution of the Executive Branch prevention system explains in part the reluctance of proponents of regulation to go beyond the broad goal of safeguarding public confidence in Government to clearly defined program objectives.

Finally, future conflict-of-interest reform, to be productive, must take into account the history of the Executive Branch conflict-of-interest prevention program.


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