Structural Corruption and Reform

Multinational Monitor, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview

Structural Corruption and Reform


AS THE FALL ELECTIONS APPROACH, the Democratic arty is, quite rightly, trying to make a campaign issue out of the "culture of corruption" that has taken root on Capitol Hill.

How exactly does a corrupt culture emerge? Surely there is no single answer, but cultural norms, in this and many other regards, are established from the top. On Capitol Hill, the departed Tom Delay and the Republican leadership have turned legislative power into a shakedown operation. Access to power is conditioned on provision--legally, quasi-legally or illegally--of money and favors. At the White House and the executive branch, economic, trade and regulatory policy is crafted in response to demands from large donors, or simply drafted by those donors themselves.

All of this hews to a long, bipartisan tradition. But there are degrees. The corrupt vice-grip on Washington knows no recent parallels.

Beyond personality and the current ruling gang, however, lie deeper questions of structure. Formal rules and institutions fundamentally affect the creation of cultural norms. A reform agenda--whether it deals with corruption in the United States, developing countries or elsewhere--cannot rely on changing personalities. It is important to identify the many institutional arrangements that facilitate, encourage or enable corruption, and replace them with new frameworks that promote transparency and democracy.

Recognizing that there are no panaceas in this arena, here are five, varied suggestions:

1. In the political realm in the United States, the most important step forward is obvious: Publicly financed elections. As David Sirota notes in this issue, as long as candidates for office must seek private financing to win elections, elected officials are going to give preferential access to those who can contribute and raise cash. Take the private financing out of the system, and you remove an important institutional incentive for corruption.

2. Public policy debate on numerous issues has been corrupted by an ever growing array of corporate front groups. They skew debate by representing the views of vested corporate interests, without disclosing their financial backing. So long as corporations are going to be permitted to participate in public policy debates--and the extent to which they should maintain such a right deserves scrutiny--they should be obligated to disclose, on a worldwide basis, all of their direct and indirect contributions to politicians, political parties, think-tanks, educational organizations and other charities.

3. Privatization and government contracting work, whether in the United States or elsewhere, create vast opportunities for corruption--it's a smart investment for corporations to pay government officials to rig deals--and cronyism. …

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