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Susan M. Collins: Can Government Mandate Ethics?

Susan M. Collins was elected to represent the state of Maine in the U.S. Senate in 1996 and was reelected to a second term in 2002. She is the 15th woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right. Senator Collins, a Republican, serves as the chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, one of 12 major committees in the U.S. Senate. This committee has jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security and is the Senate’s chief oversight committee.

Senator Collins was raised in Caribou, a small city in northern Maine. Her family runs a fifth-generation lumber business, founded by her ancestors in 1844, and operated today by two of her brothers.

She graduated magna cum laude in 1975 from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. She worked with former Maine Senator William S. Cohen, was a member of the Cabinet of Maine Governor John McKernan, and served as New England administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. In 1994 she became the founding executive director of the Center for Family Business at Husson College in Bangor, Maine, until she resigned to run for the U.S. Senate.

She has been an advocate for education, homeland security, and supporting small businesses. The New York Times has said, “She leads through the force of her ideas and her ability to take a fresh look at an issue.”

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Ethix: Over the past four years we have had a series of serious business ethics scandals from Enron and Andersen through to more recent cases. What concerns do you have about this, and what do you see as the proper response from government?

Senator Susan Collins: Response to the business scandals should come not only from government, but from the shareholders, corporate executives, boards of directors, and the general public. One of the lessons from the Enron scandal is the failure of so many parties. In this case, the checks and balances in our corporate system all failed. The executives didn’t do their jobs, the boards of directors didn’t do their jobs, the accountants didn’t do their jobs, and the lawyers didn’t do their jobs. All parties called on to exercise vigorous oversight failed in their fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of their investors.

At the time of the Enron scandal, I was a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which held hearings on the Enron debacle. Those hearings brought out information that was later instrumental for prosecutors bringing charges against some Enron executives. We helped to unravel the web of problems.

Sarbanes-Oxley

Congress also responded legislatively by passing what is known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It created more oversight for corporations, imposed new rules for the accounting industry, and perhaps most important of all, required CEOs to personally vouch for the accuracy of the financial statements of their company. I think those were very significant reforms. But probably the most significant response has come from the redefinition of the role played by the board of directors for publicly traded companies. Directors are taking more aggressive roles in fulfilling their fiduciary and oversight responsibilities, acting as a genuine check on the decisions of corporate executives.

I have talked with a number of corporate executives who said Sarbanes-Oxley has added greatly to the auditing costs, to their paperwork, and it doesn’t really have an impact on the controls. Has Congress put in any measure of the impact of this legislation? How effective to you think it is at this point?

I believe the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has had a beneficial impact. I am sure that it has had some negative cost impact for some corporations, but it has helped to restore confidence in our markets. I would also argue, given the widespread corporate scandals, that the accounting and auditing function for public firms had just not been rigorous enough. The more stringent requirements for auditing, the separation of accounting and consulting roles, and most of all, the requirement of certification of the financial statements, have been beneficial to investors. We have to remember that the corporate scandals didn’t just involve Enron. They were widespread, including several other large corporations. We have seen many of them restate their earnings. That suggests to me that we did need to act through legislation. It would have been better if the marketplace itself had dealt with the issues, but it failed in this case.

In light of the continuing problems, do you envision other things that the Congress will do?

This session, the Congress may pass mutual fund reform legislation. While the SEC has made a good start in many of the reforms they have proposed, I think that Congress must act to modernize the 64-year-old laws that govern mutual funds. Now, it is important that we do not go too far. We don’t want to impose so many burdens through new laws that we increase costs significantly for shareholders. But, I think it is important that mutual fund managers disclose their fees to shareholders just as banks explicitly list their fees in the checking account statements. I believe that mutual funds need to provide much more disclosure to their shareholders in their account statements. That would allow shareholders, including small investors, to make better decisions in deciding which mutual funds to choose. There have also been some unsavory practices such as late trading and market timing that deserve a legislative response.

Unintended Consequences

As you look at these new forms of legislation, do you consciously talk about what unintended consequences might come from the new regulations?

Yes. Once legislation has been passed, there are inevitably unintended consequences, and that is why an ongoing dialog with the affected parties and vigorous oversight are needed. A good example of that is the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act which I have been a strong and early supporter of. That law represents the most significant campaign finance reform in many years. But it had the unintended consequence of creating a new loophole for certain kinds of campaign finance groups known as “527’s” [named for IRS code 527] that have sprung up to exploit new loopholes created when we tried to reform the old campaign finance law. Similarly, I fully expect that we will find as we pass legislation for corporate governance, that in some areas we have gone too far, in other areas we have not done enough. We have to be careful that we do not impose unnecessary costs on businesses in our attempt to protect investors.

Prisoner Abuse

As we think about the current events with the war in Iraq, and the horrible abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib that has recently come to light, I have wondered about the parallel between these. It would seem the lack of accountability, abuse of power, and the belief by some that they are above the law might be in common. What is your response to this?

That’s a very, very interesting question. In some ways it all comes down to a personal sense of responsibility, and the issue of accountability. People who have strong moral compasses don’t engage in unethical behavior, whether it is in the treatment of prisoners, in the corporate world, or in the world of government. But an important check in assuring people act appropriately is holding those who do not accountable for their misdeeds. Some corporate executives, apparently motivated by greed and power, ignored their obligation to the owners of the company, the shareholders. Similarly, we are finding in the investigation of prisoner abuse, that the lack of personal responsibility and the lack of a moral compass has allowed terrible abuses, abuses that are antithetical to American values and completely contrary to what our country represents.

So if the issue of values is central to the discussion, and I know of your interest in education, are you thinking about the role of education in addressing some of the character and value issues in America?

When the prisoner scandal first broke, many of my colleagues said this represents a lack of training. But I believe the issue goes far deeper than training. We certainly need training for guards to know how to appropriately respond to prisoners. But surely, we shouldn’t have to train people not to physically and sexually abuse those who are in their care. That is something that goes far beyond military training—to basic values. The sources of those values in our society include our families, our churches, and our schools. There has been interest in Congress in promoting what is called “character education.” This is really an issue for the state and local level, rather than at the federal level. The responsibility for teaching values and ethics belongs to institutions like the family and the church. But often nowadays the government is called on to be a substitute for these other institutions, perhaps reflecting the strain on basic institutions like the family. I acknowledge I don’t have the answer to this issue. I believe this is first and foremost a family issue, and then a church issue.

I was hoping you would step forward with an easy answer to this hard question!

Senate Governance

Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about governance in the Senate, which you have responsibility for. Here is another area where there is the possibility for abuse of power. What is the Senate doing to assure good governance for itself?

That question has special significance for me right now, because unfortunately I have never seen the Senate so dysfunctional. This is due in part to the fact that the Senate is closely divided between the parties, and also that it is a presidential election year where the partisanship is particularly evident.

My personal approach is to try to work with people on both sides of the aisle to forge compromise. Compromise is the oil that makes government run smoothly. We seem to have reached a stage where it is very difficult to get anything done. We need to restore a sense of civility in dealing with differences.

Civility is certainly a fundamental need in our society, and in our businesses as well. But it seems like in the Senate, like in business, there is the potential for other kinds of abuse of power as well.

There are problems in government, no doubt about it. Just last week we launched an investigation to see if federal tax dollars were being used to pay for phony degrees from “diploma mills.” Unfortunately, we found that the answer was yes. We found a number of cases where federal checks had been issued on behalf of federal employees to unaccredited educational institutions that require little or no work for their degrees. On further investigation, we have found nearly $200,000 in federal checks where the government has paid for these degrees. It was troubling and worrisome for me and our investigators to discover that there were 28 high level federal employees, and 463 employees in all, with degrees from these bogus institutions in just the agencies we examined. This raises a host of questions about whether these individuals are trustworthy, whether they are qualified, whether they are ethical. If they were willing to put bogus degrees on their resumes, should they have high level security clearances? This is just one area where we are trying to be sure that federal employees are properly representing themselves.

Beyond civility and bogus degrees, are there other issues of concern to the governance role?

The obligation of those of us who are in public roles is to represent the public, and most members of Congress do just that. But occasionally, special interests prevail over the public interest.

I remember encountering the bogus degree problem at The Boeing Company, and was involved in terminating an employee who presented himself as having a degree from Oxford University when in fact he had purchased a degree from a diploma mill in the town of Oxford! This suggests a different topic. I get offers all the time for degrees without doing any work through spam on my email. Are you engaged in any discussions around dealing with spam, viruses, and related ills associated with our electronic age?

Spam is such an irritation. My staff became aware of the phony degree issue through the spam they received. Congress is involved, introducing an initiative called the “CAN-SPAM Act.” This new law greatly increases the penalties for the transmission of unsolicited commercial email. I think we are going to have to do something more. Email has become the major marketing tool for all sorts of scams. It interferes with the legitimate electronic business. This act is a well motivated first step, but I don’t believe it is sufficient.

I am also concerned about how vulnerable federal computers are to computer viruses such as the recent Sassar virus. These viruses interfere with our electronic communication that we have come to depend on. Federal agencies have historically lagged behind in aggressively protecting their computers, and that is really worrisome given that many federal computers contain sensitive information. I think this is a real problem. The Governmental Affairs Committee passed the Information Security Reform Act of 2002. It requires each agency to pay attention to their own security and to send status reports to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but I think we are way behind where we need to be.

Security and Freedom

Does this come down to a tradeoff between security and freedom? In the Homeland Security area, where you have responsibility, you are also faced with these tradeoffs.

"Security is not the primary enemy of freedom, terrorism is..."

I think it is important for us to remember that security is not the primary enemy of freedom—terrorism is. As we fight the war against terrorism, we have to do so without sacrificing our fundamental values. If we did, that would give the terrorists their greatest victory. If they cause America to become a less free nation because we are fearful, this gives terrorists the victory. We must strike the right balance. For example, with my support, Congress withheld funding from the Department of Defense for an information awareness and data mining program, which was going to merge huge databases and use that combined enormous database to search for personal information that might help to identify terrorists. That would be great if it only identifies terrorists, but it worries me to have the federal government amassing enormous databases containing personal information on law-abiding Americans. It is an area where we have to be constantly vigilant. It is interesting to me because surveys show that a lot of Americans are willing to sacrifice some measure of privacy in order to feel safer. I am not one of those people. I feel very strongly that if you start sacrificing privacy and civil liberties, you are giving the terrorists a victory.

What are the impacts of these security and privacy measures on business globalization? And how do you think the current anti-American sentiment in the world will impact the ability of Americans to travel freely throughout the world? I have a couple of trips coming up to other parts of the world, and it is something I now think about which I have never thought about before.

The anti-American sentiment is very troubling to me as is the increase in anti-Semitism we are seeing around the world. We still have Islamic extremists, who are preaching hatred for Christians, Jews, and Americans. It does put Americans at risk. I don’t know what the answer to this is. Some of my colleagues would argue we have brought this on ourselves by the war in Iraq, and by not working closely enough with our allies in the United Nations. I do not agree with that, but the anti-American feelings are troubling since it does represent a threat to Americans who are traveling in countries that are increasingly hostile toward us.

Outsourcing

Another aspect of globalization is the whole area of outsourcing. I am wondering what your thoughts are there. There is a growing reaction around the country to outsourcing and what this means to American jobs. And yet the world of business has a more global structure today. What are your concerns here?

I represent a state that has lost 18,000 manufacturing jobs. In our state, people who have worked their whole lives in paper mills and shoe factories suddenly find themselves out of work. There are communities where the paper mill or the shoe factory represented the only significant source of employment. It is very difficult. It is one thing if you are in your twenties and you lose your job. You can go back to school at federal government expense and can get training and start a new life. It is another thing for older people to lose their jobs, where retraining may be less viable. However, I don’t think the answer is to close our eyes to global trade. Trade creates many more jobs, even in a state like Maine, than we lose because of outsourcing. But I don’t think there is a level playing field for many of our industries in global trade. Many other countries have been allowed to continue with high tariffs that make our goods more expensive than they should be. That’s an issue for us to deal with.

Another concern is there is just not a commitment on the part of some large multinational corporations that are simply focused on short-term profits; they are just not committed to job creation and preservation in the U.S. This is one reason why we have to help our own home-grown businesses and startups grow.

Robert Reich suggested the argument that part of the reason for outsourcing is not the big, bad corporations but consumers who demand the lowest price. When you demand lower prices, you are asking companies to find a cheaper way to produce the product and that often means outsourcing. How do you respond to that argument?

It is a legitimate point that trade can often result in lower prices for goods. But too often it is a one-way street. We are losing paper industry jobs right and left, yet one of the reasons is that our paper workers cannot compete with subsidized workers in other countries, nor can they sell their products to other countries such as Brazil, for example, because of their high tariffs. In an ideal theoretical world, you are going to want the country that can produce the goods at the lowest price and highest quality to be doing so, but in reality you too often have a playing field that is tilted against American manufacturers and workers. Our own government needs to be much more aggressive in negotiating trade agreements that lower barriers for the export of American goods.

Any final comments you would like to make personally? You come at your position as a senator with a background in business. It seems like that background is very useful to you in understanding these issues.

Personal Perspective

Our country faces a myriad of very difficult issues. I believe we cannot tackle these issues, whether it is terrorism, global trade, healthcare, etc. if the public does not have confidence that their elected officials are making ethical decisions. Public trust in government is the foundation for our ability to tackle these problems. If the public believes that government officials are making decisions tainted by personal self interest, or campaign contributions, or factors other than the public good, the public will not be willing to make the sacrifices that I think are going to be necessary to meet these challenges. That’s why public trust in government is so essential. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in public office have a special obligation to strengthen the bonds between the people we represent and their government. The best way we can do that is to act in an ethical, aboveboard, transparent manner.

My family owns a fifth-generation retail lumber business that has been continuously operated by my family since 1844 and is now run by my two younger brothers. Although I did not work in the family business, I gained a great appreciation for the essential role that small businesses play not only in providing jobs to community members but also in supporting service clubs, youth sports, and charitable organizations. In bad economic times, small businesses do everything possible to hold on to their employees unlike some large corporations that are fixated on the latest quarterly returns and are quick to slash payrolls. Throughout my career, I have been a strong advocate for small businesses.

In the final year of the administration of the first President Bush, I was the Regional Administrator for New England for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). It was during a time when small businesses were struggling to obtain credit and banks were failing throughout New England. It was a very satisfying experience to be able to assist small businesses with their credit needs through the New England Lending and Recovery Project initiated by the SBA.

In my campaign for Governor in 1994, I ran on a platform of making Maine the “Entrepreneurial State,” a state that would foster the growth of small businesses. (I won an eight-way primary but lost the general election.) Later, I was the founding executive director of the Center for Family Business at Husson College in Bangor, Maine. In my positions at the SBA and at the Center, I was able to help small businesses start up, grow, prosper, and create good jobs. As a U.S. Senator, I promote public policies that assist small businesses, which are creating more than two-thirds of the new jobs in this country.

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