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We need to safeguard democratic legislatures against kleptocracy

AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Jan. 16, 2023. The major political group embroiled in a massive European Union corruption scandal sought to insulate itself from further fallout in the cash-for-influence affair linked to Qatar and Morocco.

Nearly everywhere in the world, legislatures are consistently the least popular branch of government — a fact that has been exacerbated in recent years by polarization and gridlock, and which is often underpinned by the sense that representatives are corrupt and ineffectual. Authoritarian powers — including adversaries such as China and Russia — have sought to exploit this vulnerability to entrench their own malign influence and undermine democratic institutions. 

As democracies around the world convene for the second Summit for Democracy this week, empowering legislatures to perform better and restore public trust is crucial to any long-term strategy to push back on authoritarianism and transnational kleptocracy.

Combating corruption is key to this effort. Public opinion research shows trust in institutions declining across the world, and legislatures earn particularly low levels of confidence. For example, in OECD countries, about half of respondents think that high-level political officials would grant a favor in exchange for a well-paid private sector job.

This reputational baggage makes democratic legislatures more vulnerable to attempts to undermine their legitimacy, both by populist leaders internally and foreign powers externally. The ongoing investigation into an alleged criminal organization involving several current and former members of the European Parliament (MEP) — also known as “Qatargate” — shows that advanced democratic systems are vulnerable to serious corruption, both domestic and transnational.

Most democratic legislatures have integrity mechanisms to mitigate against corruption; for example, the U.S. House Committee on Ethics. This committee advises and educates on ethical conduct and rules, conducts investigations into wrongdoing, and reviews financial disclosures for members and senior staff. However, in many countries these institutional safeguards are either poorly implemented or need to be updated to respond to emerging threats. Under U.S. congressional rules, for example, the trips that MEPs involved in Qatargate reportedly took would have been subject to the review and approval of the ethics committee of their chamber, and very likely denied.

In order to be effective, legislative ethics bodies need to establish workable instruments to guide behavior, educate members and staff, and investigate and penalize wrongdoing. These instruments normally include a code of conduct or a code of ethics that guides proper, respectable and acceptable behavior, covering a range of issues from assets disclosure to conflicts of interest. The reform plan put forward by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola is a step in the right direction. Among other measures, the 10-point plan establishes a cooling-off period for MEPs who wish to lobby when they are no longer in office and imposes new reporting requirements for events and meetings for both members and staff.

To increase their resilience to domestic corruption and push back against kleptocratic influence, democratic legislatures across the globe should strengthen the infrastructure, principles and strategic vision that underpin effective legislative integrity systems. The first step should be to create a permanent, nonpartisan or multi-partisan body within the legislature to monitor and enforce adherence to the rules. To ensure these bodies remain above the fray and are vested with the authority to carry out their mission, they must adopt intentional practices of confidentiality to safeguard the rights of staff and members. The scope of their mandate should be broad, closing any loopholes that might enable foreign efforts to corrupt legislators or staff, such as strongly regulating conflicts of interest during and after being in office.

Second, it is also important to educate good-faith actors on how and when to correct the behavior of other legislators. Guarding against abuses of power requires meaningful orientation sessions for newly-elected representatives and their staff, as well as ongoing ethics training.

Third, the investigatory duties of ethics institutions should not be overlooked; they are a critical power to root out wrongdoing and recommend appropriate penalties when necessary. However, they require the will of legislators themselves to sanction those who violate the norms, including those of their own parties. In polarized political environments, including many established democracies, foreign actors are more able to render existing safeguards less effective.

Finally, legislatures must prioritize measures that monitor and push back on sources of illiberal influence through increased transparency. Important tools include open lobbying registries and other mechanisms such as specialized committees that track foreign debt and other government functions vulnerable to kleptocracy and autocratic meddling. 

The legitimacy of legislatures rests on the ethical and professional behavior of members and staff. As democracies continue to grapple with daunting domestic and international challenges, legislators must protect their institutions from the corrosive power of corruption and kleptocracy. Preventative measures can help mitigate institutional failures and insulate bodies from scandal and the costs of faltering public trust.

Eguiar Lizundia is a senior adviser for governance and anti-corruption at the International Republican Institute, where Erin McMenamin serves as a senior program manager for legislative strengthening.

Tags Autocracy democracies Kleptocracy Legislatures Summit for Democracy

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