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Is our government corrupt? That's a little like asking “is the food in your home unsafe?” The answer is maybe. Corruption, like spoiled food, is rarely something happening everywhere at once. Instead:
- It happens in places where people aren't looking often
- It starts small and gets worse over time
- Replacing the offender is the usual tactic, but…
- …that doesn't solve whatever pattern created the issue in the first place
Perhaps the gold standard for understanding this problem comes from the non-partisan, non-profit Transparency International . To them: corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Or if you want to watch it as a YouTube video.
We're not done, though. Because even Transparency International has been accused of, you guessed it, corruption. They've taken money from companies that pled guilty to bribery charges . Their staff have complained about internal bullying and harassment . And then there's that classic question, quis custodiet. Who is keeping an eye on the corruption researchers? Good question .
Spotting Unethical Behavior
Sometimes corruption is huge, like the 2005 case of Congressman William Jefferson taking $478,000 in bribes and wasting even more in government resources . Sometimes it is so small that people aren't sure it should be counted as “corruption,” like the cards issued to friend and family of police officers that can help them out of minor traffic violations . But once you start looking for it, corruption is everywhere. You can't not see it.
Because, any time someone has influence, there's the potential for corruption. The mayor's brother-in-law might be considered as a vendor for the city. A friend of utilities director could be in need of a job. A report might be leaked early to a close contact in the media. All of this has happened, and in each case, it's hard to say how bad it is.
But we know it's bad. We just don't know what do about it.
What to about corruption
Much of anti-corruption law says what you cannot do. For example, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 makes it illegal (mostly) to pay off government officials in foreign countries if you want to do business with them . There are tons more laws about what you can't do, from earn too much extra money as a sitting official, to take gifts over a specific dollar figure, to make donations that fail to follow specific guidelines . The rules are direct: Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
But instead, perhaps we should be saying more of what you must do. For example, certain government employees are required to file a public financial disclosure report . There are also, in some situations, requirements to announce any potential conflicts of interest. And there's been a lot of discussion about whether or not officials should place their assets into what's called a blind trust . This way the politician won't know what investments they actually have, because an independent trustee will manage them.
My attitude about all of these suggestions is simple: sounds good to me. Public service is supposed to be about service, not about anything which could enrich the individual. You think members of Congress should not be able to accept donations, or they should be further limited? I don't think it will help much, but I'm fine with it. Should there be a five year cooling-off period before a former elected official can become a lobbyist ? Sure. I'm even a fan of the D.C. Dormitory.
Since trust is the problem, anything that enhances trust is on the table. I want to help. And anything which could possibly lead to even the appearance of corruption makes it that much harder to serve the people.
Whatever you can come up with to fight corruption, I think it's worth considering.
 A piece in the Iowa Law Review spells out all kinds of obscure problems with the FCPA, if you're into that sort of thing.