Event Summary: Political Corruption in the United States and Around the Globe

April 28, 2004

The Brookings Institution and Transparency International held a symposium today to discuss political corruption both in the United States and abroad. Panelists agreed that governments everywhere could benefit from greater transparency and disclosure in their political processes. Transparency International also recently released its 2004 Global Corruption Report on irregularities in the political process and their effect on public life.

In recent years, many countries have adopted legal and regulatory reforms to ensure free and fair elections, and required financial disclosure to prevent political bribery. But even the most ambitious reforms are often undermined and exploited. The reason, according to panelists, was invariably the same: money.

“Money thwarts governance,” said Gene Ward, senior advisor at USAID. “If we really care about democracy, we’ve got to follow the money.”

Panelists said that the presence of money in politics was both inevitable and necessary, but they worried about how it entered the political system, its effect on government,and the appearance of impropriety it created.

“There should be no doubt that donors often give to gain access and that the donations are solicited by offering access,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “You can’t understand public policy unless you look at the money.”

“The notion that we have a pay a gratuity or a tip in order to have access to our political leaders is an outrage in the world’s greatest democracy,” said Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development.

“I pay for my politicians when I pay my taxes,” Noble added. “I don’t feel that I ought to have to pay for them again.”

Panelists struggled with how exactly to solve the problem, and how to blunt money’s corrosive effects.

Ward said that one way to help nations avoid political corruption is to put campaign finance figure in the spotlight. “Whenever you talk about development [in foreign countries], let’s make sure money in politics gets in to the discussion.”

Kolb suggested judicial selection reform as another area where improvement was needed, arguing that in many states elected judges are not required to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors.

Transparency International Chairman Peter Eigen said committed leaders were needed to end corruption. “In order to fight political corruption, you must have political will that is sustained,” he said.

However, FEC Chairman Bradley Smith wasn’t convinced that a simple solution existed, and he said that politicians needed to pinpoint the problem before addressing it.

“It’s difficult to define political corruption,” Smith said. “Therefore, it is very hard to determine what kind of reforms we should adopt, whether those reforms are working, and whether we should continue down the road of more such reform.” He drew attention to recent calls to regulate contributions to “527s”—political groups set up under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code that aren’t constrained by contribution limits. Critics consider 527s to be an exploitation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as McCain-Feingold) that was signed into law in 2002 and recently upheld by the Supreme Court.

“The downside of regulating 527s,” Smith said, “is that we would expect the 527s to become 501(c)s which have even less disclosure than the 527s. We’re working down the disclosure ranks if we go in that direction.”

Larry Noble said that ultimately there wasn’t—and shouldn’t—be a perfect solution in sight. “There is no end game to this,” Noble said, “because you’re dealing with conflicting principles and forces that are natural to any democracy. There never will be an end to the struggle. There can’t be. This is all part of the care and feeding of democracy and you can’t get discouraged by it.”