Unstacking the Deck: A New Agenda to Tame Corruption in Washington


By Rohit Chopra and Julie Margetta Morgan

This is an excerpt of Mr. Chopra and Ms. Margetta Morgan’s report, “Unstacking the Deck: A New Agenda to Tame Corruption in Washington.” View the full report on the Roosevelt Institute’s website.

In an October 2017 poll, Americans named “corruption of government officials” as their top fear, ranking it above North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. According to the Pew Research Center, the last decade has been the longest stretch of low trust in government since 1958, when Americans were first polled on this question.

It is widely accepted that corruption is a fundamental impediment to shared prosperity in the developing world. In 2013, the president of the World Bank declared that corruption is “public enemy number one.” Over the years, the U.S. has put into place tough laws to stop American companies from engaging in corruption overseas. Despite evidence of corruption in our own government, however, we too often accept it rather than put forth ideas to curtail it.

There are significant economic implications when corruption persists. Instead of investing in the “real” economy—by building new plants, buying vital equipment, or hiring more workers—firms might instead divert these resources to lobbying and influencing. In addition, when the largest and most entrenched firms invest heavily in lobbying and influencing, they can use this power to rig the rules against innovators that might challenge their dominance. Moreover, if entering a market requires hiring former government officials to engage in lobbying and influencing, smaller and newer firms may be blocked from competing at all.

Corruption is a vehicle for the powerful and the connected to foreclose opportunities for the companies and communities that don’t have access to lawyers and lobbyists. Corruption also reduces the voices and obstructs the participation of marginalized communities in our economy and democracy. Building a more productive and equitable economy—and society— rests on our ability to tame government corruption.

In public policy debates, there has been considerable attention to the role of money in politics: the ways in which campaign contributors can influence who gets elected and which positions a candidate takes. But in this paper, we argue that we must also directly confront the impact of money in government: the ways in which money influences government agencies, especially regulators and law enforcement officials, to act for the benefit of special interests rather than the broader public good. We highlight the corrosive impact of these forces and explore potential policy options to root out the soft corruption driving the public’s distrust.

Today’s anti-corruption infrastructure was largely developed in the wake of Watergate, but we identify four major problems that must be addressed going forward.

  • First, enforcement of anti-corruption laws for officials in federal government agencies is lackluster. Existing investigative bodies either lack the authority to curtail corruption or focus their attention outside of federal officials and those who seek to influence them.
  • Second, ethics and transparency laws that are supposed to protect the public from conflicts of interest by government officials are inadequate and outdated. 
  • Third, the revolving door—where individuals move between government service and special interests—contributes to “cultural capture,” where officials in federal government agencies see their interests as more closely aligned with the entities they regulate, rather than the interests of the public.
  • Fourth, the public lacks the information and tools required to identify conflicts of interest and stop unseemly actions that benefit special interests at the public’s expense.

Throughout history, Americans have taken action to confront corruption, particularly after major scandals. There are number of steps to take to address the current issues plaguing our system.

To root out corruption and restore faith and trust in our government, we outline a series of ideas and policy options. We discuss the establishment of a new public integrity agency that consolidates the balkanized enforcement and oversight authorities into a singular, accountable watchdog. We also outline a set of tougher restrictions on the revolving door to curb the influence of special interests during and after a public official’s service. We also describe new tools to empower the public and deter corrupt practices.

These approaches are not meant to be exhaustive or definitive; they are meant to spark greater discussion about the ways we can reduce corruption and increase government’s accountability to the public interest, rather than to special interests.

See the full report at http://rooseveltinstitute.org/unstacking-deck/ and hear from Mr. Chopra at OCM’s 20th Annual Food and Agriculture Conference.

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