Changes in policies, not personalities, will improve perception of corruption in the US

Changes in policies, not personalities, will improve perception of corruption in the US
© The Hill Illustration

The world’s oldest democracy is in trouble.

The United States has received its lowest score in nearly a decade on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Released annually by our organization, Transparency International, the Index has been the leading global indicator of public sector corruption since its inception in 1995, and is routinely relied on by governments, businesses, policymakers and civil society organizations across the world. In dropping two points, to 69, the U.S. hits a record low in the modern history of the Index.

Meanwhile, Denmark and New Zealand topped the Index with 87 points each, while Syria, South Sudan and Somalia are at the bottom with 13, 12 and 9 points, respectively.

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While scores reflects data and analysis from 13 expert assessments and surveys, including sources like the World Bank, Freedom House, the Economist’s Democracy Index and the World Economic Forum, there can be little doubt that President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE’s influence is playing into the numbers that inform the U.S.’s score.

But data across Index cycles suggest that Donald Trump is but the latest symptom, not the cause, of our downward trend. For those committed to diagnosing and deconstructing the true drivers of our country’s corruption crisis, we submit the Index as further proof that what’s really needed are changes in public policy, not public personalities.

We see two potential routes to rehabilitating the U.S.’s score.

First is by building new barriers to block the flow of “dirty money” into our financial system. At present, an ever-increasing list of bad actors, foreign and domestic, are exploiting gaps in U.S. laws to “clean” their ill-gotten gains. From foreign despots to terror networks, drug cartels to human traffickers, some of the world’s most destructive forces are using the anonymity provided by various corporate forms (e.g., limited liability companies) to hide their illicit funds with impunity. Bipartisan legislation currently before Congress, known as the ILLICIT CASH Act and the Corporate Transparency Act, would go a long way toward stopping these threats to our national and economic security.

Second is by insulating our political systems from the rising tide of special-interest influence. The limitless flood of campaign money that’s come to define American elections has merged with unchecked partisan gerrymandering, foreign interference and restrictions on the right to vote to poison our political processes. More than in any other major developed country in the world, people in the U.S. believe that rich people buy elections, according to one study behind the Index. Failed states like Venezuela, and developing nations like Mozambique and Myanmar, earned higher marks in this regard. That’s a chilling distinction for the world’s first constitutional republic. 

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Again, we can blame gaps in existing laws. According to our analysis, countries that typically score lower on the Index have weak or poorly enforced campaign finance laws, while over half of countries that improved their scores significantly since 2012 had strengthened those laws. Many of the U.S.’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws were written almost 50 years ago. Looking back on a year of increased global political unrest, updating these laws could provide us and the rest of the world with a path to greater stability. 

The states have been showing us the way. In the last two years, more laws to strengthen democracy have been passed in American cities and states than in any point in U.S. history. For example, North Dakota recently voted to require the disclosure of all significant spending on elections, to ban lobbyists from collecting and delivering thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians and to close the “revolving door” between public service and private industry. On the same day, New York City voted to rein in the influence of special interests by strengthening the city's renowned public financing program. Altogether, we count some two dozen successful political reforms over the past two years.

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the appearance of corruption was “of almost equal concern” as actual corruption. This year, let’s do what’s needed to prevent the world’s latest perceptions from becoming reality.

Gary Kalman and Scott Greytak are the director and advocacy director, respectively, of the U.S. Office of Transparency International.