Last Updated: Monday, 14 July 2014, 13:12 GMT

Today's American: How Free? - Corruption: money and politics

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 2 May 2008
Cite as Freedom House, Today's American: How Free? - Corruption: money and politics, 2 May 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4910131832.html [accessed 14 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The road to the 2006 congressional elections was fraught with revelations of waste, fraud, inappropriate conduct, and other misuses of government office by elected officials. Shortly after the 2004 elections, allegations began to surface that the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, had accepted lavish trips, gifts, and political donations from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In early April 2005, as the Abramoff investigation gained traction, the media reexamined reports of a 1998 trip that DeLay, his family, and several members of his staff had taken to the island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas. The stay had been arranged and financed by Abramoff, who accepted $1.36 million from Saipan officials to lobby against a bill aimed at cracking down on the sex trade and sweatshops in the U.S. territory. DeLay reportedly promised Abramoff's clients that he would not let the bill reach the House floor.1

DeLay was also among several power brokers treated to an extravagant Scottish golf excursion in 2000, a trip that was paid for in part by the internet gambling company and Abramoff client eLottery. Shortly after the trip, the Texas congressman used a parliamentary procedure to help kill the proposed Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which had majority support in the House but was fervently opposed by eLottery. DeLay's name was sullied further in May 2005, when a state judge found that Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a fundraising committee organized by DeLay, had violated election laws by failing to disclose over $600,000 in contributions. DeLay himself was indicted for conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws in September 2005. In April 2006, DeLay announced that he would not run for reelection; he then resigned from the House effective June 9, 2006.

The scope of the Abramoff scandal expanded in January 2006, when the lobbyist and two former DeLay staffers charged that Representative Robert Ney, an Ohio Republican, had been given "things of value" in return for political favors. Four months later, the House Ethics Committee announced that it was investigating Ney. In September he declared that he would plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and to falsifying financial disclosure forms, making him the first member of Congress to admit guilt in connection with the Abramoff scandal. On November 3, four days before the midterm elections, Ney resigned from Congress.

Far-reaching though the Abramoff scandal was, it was not the only case of legislative corruption exposed ahead of the midterm elections. In November 2005, Representative Randy (Duke) Cunningham of California, a Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, pleaded guilty to accepting over $2 million in bribes from defense contractor Mitchell Wade in exchange for government contracts for Wade's firm. In a separate case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in October 2006 raided six offices and homes in connection with a probe into the activities of Representative Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, fueling speculation that he had used his position to win contracts for clients of a lobbying firm formed by his daughter and a longtime friend. Meanwhile, House Republican leaders were accused of attempting to cover up allegations that Representative Mark Foley of Florida had pursued inappropriate relations with young House pages.

While the Republican Party, as the party in power, was the subject of most of the political scandals that unfolded ahead of the 2006 elections, the Democrats were by no means untarnished by allegations of corruption. The most notable were those asserting that Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana had frequently demanded bribes in exchange for promoting business ventures in Africa. In May 2006, as part of a corruption probe, Jefferson was filmed accepting a $100,000 bribe from a Virginia businessman whom the FBI had wired. Later, upon searching Jefferson's home, federal agents discovered $90,000 in cash hidden in his freezer.2 Despite that case and a number of less egregious and less well-documented allegations of wrongdoing by members of the Democratic Party, the issue of corruption was generally a boon for Democrats and burden for Republicans during the 2006 campaign season.

In the elections, the Democratic Party managed to seize control of both houses of Congress and win a majority of the country's governorships. While this feat was no doubt the result of a confluence of several different factors, much of the early analysis suggested that a widespread perception of corruption contributed significantly to the electoral result. The National Review, for instance, pointed out that one-third of the 29 House seats lost by Republicans were in districts where the incumbent was tied in some way to a corruption scandal.3 The seats formerly held by Tom DeLay, Robert Ney, Mark Foley, and Curt Weldon all fell to Democratic candidates in 2006. Moreover, according to the exit polls, corruption was rated "extremely important" by more voters than any other issue.

Opinion polls and news editorials suggest that the recent scandals have fueled both a popular perception that corruption is rampant in American politics and a growing cynicism toward the ethical disposition of political officials in the United States.4 While these select incidents of political corruption certainly warrant the attention, ire, and calls for reform that they have elicited, they do not provide a reasonable basis for a perception of widespread corruption. To the contrary, in each of the recent cases, various political institutions have worked to identify incidents of corruption and hold the culprits responsible for their actions.

By world and historic standards, today's America is exceptionally free of corruption. The business of the U.S. government is conducted with a high degree of transparency. Any individual is able to access nonclassified government information, and the nation's press corps reports unabashedly on questionable political practices. The rule of law is firmly established and enforced by a capable bar and an independent judiciary that, given evidence of corruption, do not shrink from prosecuting either government officials or the most powerful private individuals. In fact, some argue that the problem is not a lack of tools to investigate and adjudicate corruption, but an excess of overzealous prosecutors armed with seemingly endless funds and an array of instruments with which to pursue whomever they please.5 Nonetheless, when the range of behaviors that can be construed as corrupt is expanded to include ostensibly legal actions that would be widely viewed as misuse of government office, corruption is a significant problem in American politics.

In particular, the appointment and hiring of political cronies, the extraordinary influence of embedded special interests, and the use of no-bid government contracts to unfairly benefit a select few raise serious concerns. Additionally, although Congress has taken a few steps to limit the misuse of public office and prohibit practices that may give rise to the appearance of corruption, the federal government has more often failed to respond – or acted too slowly or inadequately – to public cries for reform. In some cases, the government has acted in a way that erodes political institutions meant to ensure responsive politics, limit favoritism, and protect government whistleblowers.

Cronyism

Administrative appointments based on loyalty or patronage rather than merit are likely to produce inept officials, unresponsive governance, and public resentment. It is for precisely this reason that the framers of the U.S. Constitution gave the Senate an "advice and consent" role in the appointment process. As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist #76, advice and consent is "an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity [emphasis added]." Despite this and other checks, cronyism has infected federal, state, and local government throughout the country's history.

Ironically, one of the first accusations of cronyism was directed at President George Washington for appointing Hamilton, his trusted political adviser and former lieutenant colonel, as secretary of the treasury. While Hamilton quickly proved to be a shrewd and adept treasury secretary, there is no shortage in American history of executive appointees who showed themselves to be far less competent. Appointees of President Andrew Jackson were particularly notorious. Upon winning the 1828 presidential election, Jackson filled the executive branch with his friends and supporters, many of whom were untrained for the positions they were given and indifferent to the work they were assigned. He reasoned that rotation in the federal bureaucracy was "democratic" and argued that his electoral victory gave him a mandate to hand out jobs, a claim subsequently expressed with the phrase, "To the victor go the spoils."6

Under the spoils system, which was adopted by later presidents, appointments were routinely and openly given out as rewards for political support. One consequence of the system was excessive turnover, as each president replaced the hires of the previous administration with his own people. This resulted in a lack of institutional memory and experience, which exacerbated bureaucratic malaise and inefficiency. After half a century of increasingly ineffective administration, the federal government gradually replaced patronage with the merit system. In 1883, the Pendleton Act created an independent commission for bureaucratic oversight, instituted standards for hiring, and provided job security for employees brought up under the new system. Subsequent federal laws and other developments limited patronage still further, and by the turn of the century, cronyism was largely restricted to the most senior administrative positions. However, at the state and local levels, patronage remained commonplace until the 1940s, when it slowly disappeared with the collapse of most the country's political machines.

Despite institutional checks such as Senate approval of executive appointments and the gradual demise of the spoils system, presidents have continued to nominate loyal friends and advisers to important posts, regardless of merit. In fact, the use of the term "cronyism" to describe the practice was popularized by the press in reference to the administration of President Harry S. Truman.7 The term stuck as subsequent presidents gave the press abundant occasions to use it. President John F. Kennedy made his brother the attorney general and appointed Robert McNamara, whose background was in business administration, as secretary of defense. President Jimmy Carter named his old friend Bert Lance director of the Office of Management and Budget despite his questionable business practices as chairman of Calhoun National Bank. (Lance resigned after a Senate investigation into the alleged misuse of bank funds and assertions that he had acted unethically to secure large personal loans.)

Perhaps no recent president has come under more fire for cronyism than George W. Bush. The most serious criticism has concerned appointments linked to the most significant challenges of his presidency: Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast and inundated New Orleans in August 2005, was the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States. The federal rescue and relief effort that followed was widely regarded as inept, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was singled out for blame.8 Many critics of the administration charge that 2001-03 FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, who had been Bush's 2000 presidential campaign manager, was given his job as an act of patronage and was not qualified for the position. The same accusation was directed at Allbaugh's close friend and successor, Michael Brown, who had no background in emergency management and who was discovered to have padded his resume.9 Brown appeared uninformed during media interviews after Katrina struck, and did not help matters by sending several e-mails in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane in which he complained that he wanted to go home and seemed excessively concerned with finding a dog-sitter.10 He resigned two weeks after the storm made landfall.

Following the Katrina debacle, a Time magazine probe into cronyism in the Bush administration focused on three high-level administrators who might have owed their appointments to political connections rather than merit, and whose decisions may have compromised the competence and independence of the agencies they helped run.11 One was Scott Gottlieb, a 33-year old doctor turned stock-picker who was viewed by many as a friend of the pharmaceuticals industry. Bush had appointed him as deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a position typically reserved for career scientists.12 The magazine questioned Gottlieb's efforts to second-guess two decisions by career scientists at the FDA: their withholding of approval for a drug that was expected to yield $1 billion a year for the drugmaker Pfizer, and their move to halt clinical trials of another drug after some of the subjects experienced complications, from which one patient died. Time also highlighted former lobbyist David Safavian, who was put in charge of government contracts and procurements despite having virtually no relevant experience. He was indicted in connection with the Abramoff scandal in October 2005, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison a year later.

The third administrator noted by Time was Julie Myers, whose inexperience and background as Bush's personal assistant made Senate approval of her appointment as the top immigration official at the Department of Homeland of Security highly unlikely. In 2005, Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio went so far as to say, "I'd really like to have [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff] spend some time with us, telling us personally why he thinks you're qualified for the job, because based on the resume, I don't think you are."13 Unable to get Myers's nomination through the Senate, Bush sidestepped the process by installing her during a congressional recess in January 2006.

Some accusations of cronyism have centered not on patronage hires, but on the awarding of no-bid contracts. Generally, federal agencies are required to award contracts based on open and competitive bidding. But a month into the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, the New York Times reported that FEMA had awarded more than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in new contracts without competitive bidding.14 Many of the contractors were said to have close ties to federal, state, and local government officials, and to have overcharged the government for their services. Some of the companies had hired lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director, allegedly to help them secure such deals.

Particularly contentious were contracts worth a half a billion dollars that went to Halliburton, the multinational energy services and construction conglomerate. These contracts attracted special attention because, at the time, Halliburton was under investigation for overcharging the Defense Department for services provided in Iraq as part of a two-year, no-bid contract worth up to $7 billion; the contract had initially been crafted to cope with expected oil-well fires after the U.S. invasion of that country.15 Vice President Dick Cheney had previously served as head of Halliburton, making the administration's critics especially skeptical of such exclusive deals.

Defenders of the Iraq contract cited national security concerns and a need for secrecy. They also argued that Halliburton was the only company in the United States with the capacity to fulfill the terms of the contract. Bob Grace, president of Texas-based GSM Consulting, which the government of Kuwait had hired to put out over 300 oil-well fires after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has challenged both of those arguments.16 Grace cited his company's previous achievements, and on the issue of national security, he said that "secrecy about [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein blowing up oil wells, to me, is stupid.... I mean the guy's blown up a thousand of them. So why would that be a revelation to anybody?"17 The secrecy argument also seemed to contradict the Bush administration's stated efforts to present Hussein with a credible threat of invasion as it tried to force him to comply with international weapons inspectors; the public award of a major contract for post-invasion recovery work would have plausibly augmented any such threat. Moreover, an open bidding process would likely have lowered the price, even if in the end the administration intended to choose Halliburton as the most qualified bidder.

In addition to hiring unqualified supporters and awarding contracts to favored companies, U.S. leaders have been accused of cronyism for abusing the power of pardon. For example, after the 2000 presidential and congressional elections, when he could no longer be held politically accountable for the decision, outgoing President Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, who had been indicted in federal court for tax evasion and 51 counts of tax fraud. Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, had recently donated approximately $1 million to the Democratic National Committee, giving the pardon the appearance of impropriety. In contrast, President Gerald Ford's controversial 1974 pardon of disgraced former president Richard Nixon came just before that year's midterm elections, allowing voters to hold Ford's party responsible for his actions.

Corruption and Campaign Finance Reform

Even before the first U.S. congressional elections, political campaigns were recognized as opportunities for corruption. James Madison, for instance, complained that he lost his 1777 bid for a seat in the Virginia legislature because he refused to provide voters with alcohol on election day, as they had come to expect. Prior to the adoption of the Australian-style secret ballot in the late nineteenth century, votes were frequently purchased and voter intimidation was not uncommon. Moreover, until the direct election of senators in 1913, much of the public saw the U.S. Senate as a "millionaire's club," with seats bought by wealthy individuals or controlled by special interests.18 The most enduring concern, though, has been the growing role of campaign contributions in electoral politics and the influence that such money may have on public policy.

During the mid-nineteenth century, as election costs increased, candidates came to rely more and more on wealthy individuals to fund their campaigns. Between 1890 and the 1920s, corporations – particularly those in the banking sector and the railroad industry – began to fill campaign coffers.

In the 1904 presidential election campaign, Democratic candidate Alton Parker accused his Republican opponent, Theodore Roosevelt, of accepting large contributions from corporations, and alleged that he was beholden to his donors' interests. After the election, several businesses did admit to contributing funds. Roosevelt, embarrassed by the revelation, supported the passage in 1907 of the Tillman Act, the country's first campaign finance reform bill. The act outlawed corporate campaign contributions, although donations from the individuals who ran the companies were still unrestricted. The Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) followed in 1910, requiring candidates and parties to report all contributions and expenditures. In 1925 the FCPA was strengthened, and in 1940 Congress for the first time limited individual contributions to political campaigns.

Soon afterward, corporations and labor unions began forming Political Action Committees (PACs) to funnel funds to candidates. Although for many years PACs were resented for their growing influence over the electoral and policy-making processes, no further significant reforms were adopted until the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971. FECA and its subsequent amendments limited the amount of money that PACs, parties, and individuals could donate to any particular candidate in a given election cycle. The amendments also extended the ban on direct contributions to include foreign governments and their nationals, limited the ability of advocacy groups to act on the behalf of a particular candidate, provided for partial public funding of presidential campaigns, and created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce federal campaign finance laws. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), however, the Supreme Court restricted the FEC's ability to regulate advocacy groups.

Over the next quarter century, the number of PACs exploded and campaign spending accelerated. Interest groups began pouring loosely regulated "soft money" into political parties. Soft money could not be used to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate, but it was otherwise unrestricted, and the parties put it to work for their candidates through creative "issue advocacy" and "party building" efforts. In 2002, after a six-year crusade by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which prohibited parties from accepting unlimited contributions and limited the activity that could be described as issue advocacy. However, in McConnell v. FEC (2003), the Supreme Court struck down the additional restrictions on advocacy groups, citing First Amendment concerns.

Despite the enactment of the BCRA, the cost of running for public office continues to grow. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that candidates, parties, and interest groups spent $2.8 billion on the 472 federal campaigns of 2006, a 27 percent increase over the pre-BCRA midterm elections of 2002.19 In 2004, a presidential election year, $4.2 billion was spent on federal campaigns, an increase of more than 30 percent over the 2000 election cycle.20

As costs rise, candidates depend more and more on special interests to finance their election bids, and the interest groups find ways to pay. Advocacy groups exploiting a loophole in Section 527 of the tax code have been the most aggressive spenders in post-BCRA campaigns. Furthermore, the BCRA appears to have strengthened the existing advantages of incumbents by making it more difficult for challengers to raise money.21 The law has done little to alter the public's perception that elected officials use their posts to benefit their biggest campaign donors.

Candidates themselves also appear more willing to bend campaign finance rules and engage in potentially scandalous behavior to raise funds. In 1996, for instance, President Clinton was criticized for using the White House's famed Lincoln bedroom to raise money for the Democratic Party. Guests invited to sleep there were contacted by DNC fundraisers soon afterward. Fifty-one such guests made contributions of $100,000 or more in the weeks after their stays.22 In 1997, it was revealed that the DNC may have unlawfully accepted money from the Chinese government, and that Vice President Al Gore had appeared at a Buddhist temple where campaign contributions were raised in violation of rules that banned fundraising at religious institutions.

Unlike federal judges, who are expected to recuse themselves from cases that present an apparent conflict of interest, members of Congress are not required to abstain from votes on bills that raise such apparent conflicts. Lawmakers can also write measures that directly benefit their biggest contributors, and they occasionally do so. Although such contributors usually support candidates who would be ideologically inclined to champion their interests with or without a donation, the contributions have a significant impact on election outcomes and ultimately on legislative action. In addition to the high correlation that researchers have repeatedly found between campaign contributions and voting records,23 which in itself creates the appearance of unethical behavior, there are several cases in which representatives appear to have voted against their own ideological principles to benefit an interest group.

Representative Roy Blunt's dealings with Jack Abramoff provide an example in which the influence of a special interest is consistent with a lawmaker's ideology as well as an instance in which the two appear to be in conflict. Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, was criticized in 2003 for endorsing three letters urging the interior secretary, Gale Norton, to block construction of an Indian casino in Louisiana. The construction project was opposed by Abramoff's clients, and the lobbyist had contributed to Blunt's PAC, but the lawmaker's actions were consistent with his moral objection to gambling. However, in 1999 Blunt lobbied his colleagues in Congress to kill the proposed Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which would have effectively quashed the internet gambling industry in the United States. The bill was opposed by Abramoff client eLottery.

Ethics Reform and Whistleblower Protection

In 2002, the U.S. Congress responded aggressively to calls for corporate accounting reform following a spectacular wave of corruption scandals that began with the collapse of the energy-trading firm Enron, previously a favorite among investors. In February 2001, Fortune Magazine had named the energy giant the "most innovative company in America" for the sixth year running. However, over the next several months, insider selling of company stock accelerated, internal memorandums questioning the accuracy of Enron's accounting practices started to circulate, and reports of financial problems began to leak. By the end of 2001, it had emerged that Enron executives had lied about profits and concealed debt, the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the stock price had plummeted from a high of $90 to around 30 cents a share, costing investors billions of dollars and wiping out employees' retirement benefits. The auditing firm Arthur Andersen was soon implicated in the accounting fraud, which led to the exposure of major accounting scandals at other companies. One such firm, WorldCom, later admitted to overstating its earnings by $3.2 billion over the previous five quarters.

The corporate scandals enraged the American public, drew scorn from an administration trying to distance itself from the executives involved, and spurred Congress into action. The result was Sarbanes-Oxley, a monumental piece of legislation designed to rebuild public trust in corporate accounting and reporting by enhancing government oversight, holding executives personally responsible for company practices, and establishing stringent auditing procedures. While legislators proved eager to weed out corruption and develop new, higher standards for the country's corporations, they have been much more reticent to apply similar scrutiny to themselves or the executive branch.

In late 2005, following the Abramoff affair and other Capitol Hill scandals, Congress came under intense pressure from the press and the public to pass ethics reform legislation. Members of Congress from both parties promised to improve transparency and accountability in legislator-lobbyist relations. They introduced proposals to create an independent Office of Public Integrity, strengthen lobbyist disclosure rules, prohibit private financing of congressional travel, and establish a longer "cooling-off" period before a former representative or congressional staffer could lobby members of Congress. However, lawmakers failed to pass any such measure over the following year. All significant efforts at lobbying reform either failed in committee or passed in only one chamber.

In the 2006 congressional elections, American voters seemed to weigh in on the matter. With a few exceptions, they ousted incumbent representatives who had been involved in recent corruption scandals, and the overall result led the Republicans to lose control of both chambers. The new Democratic leadership vowed to make ethics reform a priority of the 110th Congress, but it remained unclear whether the legislation making its way through the body in the first half of 2007 would have a significant impact on entrenched political practices.

Since elected officials and bureaucrats cannot always be relied upon to police themselves, the protection of whistleblowers – employees who bring evidence of waste, fraud, and wrongdoing to the attention of the appropriate authorities – is fundamental to ensuring that governments act within the scope of the law and government officials are held accountable for their actions. Such protection also increases the likelihood that potential threats to public health, safety, and security will be neutralized before disaster strikes. Yet under current rules, many U.S. civil servants who bring complaints to their superiors, the appropriate internal auditors, Congress, or the public continue to risk retaliation, against which they often have no legal recourse.

While all corporate and most federal employees are protected from retaliation for blowing the whistle on their employers, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 and its subsequent amendments do not fully cover civil servants working to guarantee food safety, prevent the abuse of medical patients, and ensure homeland security. Furthermore, the Bush administration has objected strenuously to extending such protections, arguing that they would infringe on the president's ability to manage the executive branch.24

Concern over the lack of protection intensified when it was revealed that top Medicare administrator Thomas Scully in 2003 had threatened to fire analyst Richard Foster if he presented evidence to Congress that the cost of a proposed Medicare overhaul bill would greatly exceed White House estimates. Foster withheld the information as lawmakers considered the bill, which passed later that year.25

More disturbing is the apparently common practice of retaliating against those who expose serious weaknesses in the government's security efforts. In 2000, for instance, Energy Department nuclear security specialist Richard Levernier repeatedly voiced his concern that many of the country's nuclear facilities were not properly secured. In fact, the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, had repeatedly failed preparedness tests by allowing mock terrorists to steal plutonium, and officials at the facility had both falsified documents to hide those failures and destroyed inspection reports to cover up their actions.26 When Levernier disclosed this information, the Energy Department suspended him and revoked his security clearance. After his story was featured in Vanity Fair magazine and on the television program 60 Minutes, the Office of Special Council (OSC) investigated and ultimately vindicated Levernier, but his security clearance was never reinstated.

Revoking security clearance is a common form of retaliation by the country's security agencies, since employees have no legal recourse when their clearance is removed and they cannot continue their work without it. Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, a vocal advocate of whistleblower rights, has said of the problem, "The pulling of a security clearance effectively fires employees."27 Having lost his job after 22 years with the Energy Department and just two years short of retiring with a full pension, Levernier told 60 Minutes, "Given my experience, I would not do it again, even though I truly believe it was the right thing to do."

Even after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, civil servants who come forward with evidence of lapses in national security are putting their careers at risk. Border security agents Mark Hall and Robert Lindeman were suspended, demoted, and suffered pay cuts for emphasizing, in the months after the terrorist attacks, that the northern border of the United States was inadequately monitored and presented a significant threat to homeland security. Bogdan Dzakovic, former leader of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Red Team, which is charged with testing airport security, felt similarly compelled after the attacks to bring to light weaknesses in airport security and efforts by his superiors to cover up those weaknesses.28 For coming forward, the FAA stripped Dzakovic of all security-related duties, despite his expertise in airport security. Airport baggage screeners who followed in Dzakovic's footsteps claim that they too were punished for raising concerns about aviation security. In response to their grievances, the Merit System Protection Board ruled in 2004 that Transportation Security Administration employees had none of the whistleblower protections extended to other federal employees.29 In all, government whistleblowers filed an average of 690 reprisal complaints annually in the four years prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks; the annual average jumped to 835 over the five years after the attacks.30

The OSC, which was established to enforce the Whistleblower Protection Act, is widely viewed as "inept and even hostile to whistleblowers."31 In the late 1990s, Senator Grassley, who coauthored the law, complained that according to the OSC's 1995 report to Congress, the office sided with the government in all but three of the 603 reprisal investigations it had conducted to date.32 Whistleblower advocates claim that the OSC under the Bush administration is no less hostile than it was under President Clinton. In 2004, the office found that only 2 percent of the 1,262 cases that year warranted an investigation, up from 1 percent in 2003. There have even been allegations of retaliation within the OSC. A group of OSC employees recently claimed that the office's head, Scott Bloch, had retaliated against OSC staff, issuing illegal gag orders to prevent them from going to Congress or the public about efforts to suppress whistleblower retaliation, cronyism, and invidious discrimination.33

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has jurisdiction over government whistleblower retaliation, has similarly failed to provide adequate protection. In deciding such matters, the court assumes that the agency involved has acted properly unless an employee offers "irrefragable proof to the contrary."34 Both Grassley and Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a coauthor of the Whistleblower Protection Act, have argued repeatedly that this standard is much too rigid. Nonetheless, the court continues to apply it and ruled against whistleblowers in 125 out of 127 cases between 1994 and late 2006.35

The U.S. Supreme Court has also recently weighed in on the issue of whistleblower protection. In Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), the court ruled, 5 to 4, that government employees who are retaliated against for raising job-related concerns internally, as opposed to publicly, are not protected under the free speech doctrine of the First Amendment, and therefore have no recourse in court outside the Federal Circuit. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy suggested that federal employees might fare better by going public than by raising concerns in the course of their government duties, since they were more likely to be constitutionally protected when speaking in their capacity as citizens. Given the court's finding, and the perceived hostility of the OSC and the Federal Circuit appeals court toward whistleblowers, the recent trend of anonymous sources leaking controversial programs and questionable government actions to the press is not surprising.

Conclusion

Political corruption is much less of a problem in the United States than it is in most parts of the world. Unlike in many countries in Africa and Latin America, for example, companies in the United States generally do not expect to pay bribes or accede to extortion when doing business with the government. U.S. officials are not commonly accused of pilfering state resources or embezzling public funds. Nor are they immune from prosecution when they are suspected of corrupt practices. Political corruption in the United States is also much less of a concern today than it was in previous eras. And, with measures such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977) and the International Anti-Bribery Act (1998), which work to increase transparency in international commerce and make it illegal for U.S. citizens or representatives of U.S. companies to give or accept bribes abroad, the United States is often on the front line in the struggle against international corruption.

Nonetheless, the popular perception of U.S. public servants' integrity appears to be deteriorating, and the U.S. government is frequently seen as more corrupt than those of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and most of northwestern Europe. Transparency International gave the United States a ranking of 20 out of 163 countries surveyed in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, finding that 19 countries had a lower perceived level of corruption.36 The American public's growing sense of pervasive government corruption is apparently due to an expansion of the sphere of behavior that most Americans consider corrupt, and to the apparent willingness of politicians to engage in, or at least tolerate, technically legal practices that are widely viewed as unethical.

One example of such questionable behavior is the ever-increasing eagerness of profit-driven companies and large interest groups to invest heavily in political outcomes. Collectively, these groups now spend over $2.25 billion a year to lobby Congress, more than $2.5 billion every other year to influence legislative elections, and another $2 billion every forth year to elect a president. Many Americans seem to have concluded that interest groups would not be spending such sums if they were not receiving a clear benefit in the form of influence over public policy.

Federal officials in recent years have elicited further contempt by failing to pass ethics reform legislation in the wake of lobbying scandals, continuing to make decisions that appear to benefit private interests without regard for the public, and failing to adequately protect whistleblowers even as they draw media attention for exposing evidence of government fraud, waste, and incompetence.

If the federal government is to quell the growing perception that political corruption is a significant problem in the United States, it must act aggressively to stamp out unseemly behavior and work to end practices that fuel the appearance of undue influence. In addition to enacting meaningful lobbying reform, Congress needs to push for more vigorous enforcement of existing campaign finance restrictions and pass additional reforms that reduce the ability of special interests to act on the behalf of any one candidate. Furthermore, the current and future administrations must resist the temptation to make appointments based on favoritism and political loyalty, and submit to congressional checks on questionable executive-branch behavior.


1 Brian Ross, "DeLay's Lavish Island Getaway," ABC News, April 6, 2005, http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Investigation/story?id=647725&page

2 Allan Lengel, "FBI Says Jefferson was Filmed Taking Cash," Washington Post, May 22, 2006.

3 Rich Lowry, "The Culture of Corruption Loses: A corpulent Congress reaps what it sowed," National Review Online, November 10, 2006, http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZjgyNmIyYTgwOWRkYThhMTc0MWQ2ZDk0ODQ4NzdkMGM=.

4 According to the five Washington Post/ABC News polls taken in 2006, a majority of respondents disapproved of the handling of ethics in government, a level not attained in 2005 polls by the same organizations: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/postpoll_121206.htm. Furthermore, a July 2006 Harris poll asking individuals if they generally trust several types of people found that only 35 percent of respondents trusted members of Congress, down from 46 percent in 1998: http://www.pollingreport.com/values.htm.

5 Many press freedom advocates lambasted the decision to jail journalist Judith Miller in 2005 for refusing to reveal her sources in relation to the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, as well as threats by other prosecutors to detain journalists in similar cases. Other observers are troubled by the fact that the Plame case was pursued even after the prosecutor was unable to bring charges for the original leak, leading to the conviction of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, for acts of obstruction and perjury that arose from the investigation itself. Similarly, in the 1990s, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's six-year, $52 million probe into the real-estate dealings of Bill and Hillary Clinton failed to substantiate the core allegations, but spawned peripheral convictions. The case led many to question the wisdom of having an independent council, and Congress let the position expire in 1999.

6 Senator William Marcy, a New York Democrat, coined this phrase in 1831. He used it to defend the appointment practices of Andrew Jackson.

7 William Safire, No Uncertain Terms: More Writing from the Popular on Language Column in the New York Times Magazine (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 60-62.

8 See Maureen Dowd, "Neigh To Cronies," New York Times, September 10, 2005; Spencer S. Hsu, "Leaders Lacking Disaster Experience," Washington Post, September 9, 2005; and Yochi J. Dreazen, "Connections Are Key To Contracts for Katrina Aid," Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2005.

9 Daren Fonda and Rita Healy, "How Reliable Is Brown's Resume?" Time Magazine, September 8, 2005, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1103003,00.html.

10 CNN.com, "'Can I Quit Now?' FEMA Chief Wrote As Katrina Raged," November 4, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/11/03/brown.fema.emails/.

11 Karen Tumulty, Mark Thompson, and Mike Allen, "How Many More Mike Browns are Out There?" Time Magazine, October 3, 2005, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1109345,00.html.

12 Ibid.

13 Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu, "Immigration Nominee's Credentials Questioned," Washington Post, September 20, 2005.

14 Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon, "Storm and Crisis: Rebuilding; Many Contracts for Storm Work Raise Questions," New York Times, September 26, 2005.

15 CBS News, "All in the Family," September 21, 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/04/25/60minutes/main551091.shtml.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 The term "millionaire's club" was frequently used to describe the U.S. Senate prior to direct elections. In his addresses to the Senate on the history of that body, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has explained that this was how newspapers referred to the Senate at the time. The Senate has revised and published some of these essays at the following web address: http://www.senate.gov/legislative/common/briefing/Byrd_History_Lobbying.htm.

19 Center for Responsive Politics, "Center for Responsive Politics Predicts '06 Election Will Cost $2.6 Billion," news release, October 25, 2006, http://www.opensecrets.org/pressreleases/2006/PreElection.10.25.asp.

20 Center for Responsive Politics, "'04 Elections Expected to Cost Nearly $4 Billion," news release, October 21, 2004, http://www.opensecrets.org/pressreleases/2004/04spending.asp.

21 Michael Johnston, "From Thucydides to Mayor Daley: Bad Politics, and a Culture of Corruption?" PS: Political Science and Politics 39, no. 4 (2006): 809-812.

22 Don Van Natta Jr., "Campaign Finance: Raising the Money," New York Times, October 4, 1997.

23 For academic studies that find such a correlation, see Stacy B. Gordon, Campaign Contributions and Legislative Voting: A New Approach (New York: Routledge, 2005). Also see the work of her predecessors: A. Etzioni, Capital Corruption: The New Attack on American Democracy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1984); A. Wilhite and J. Theilmann, "Labor PAC Contributions and Labor Legislation," Public Choice 53 (1987); P.M. Stern, The Best Congress Money Can Buy, (New York: Pantheon, 1988); and L.I. Langbein and M.A. Lotwis, "The Political Efficacy of Lobbying and Money," Legislative Studies Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1990).

24 Amy Goldstein, "Foster: White House had Role in Withholding Medicare Data," Washington Post, March 19, 2004.

25 Ibid.

26 Government Accountability Project, "Richard Levernier: DOE Nuclear Security Specialist," http://www.whistleblower.org/template/page.cfm?page_id=152.

27 Robert Pear, "Congress Moves to Protect Federal Whistleblowers," New York Times, October 3, 2004.

28 Philip Shenon, "A Nation Challenged: Airports; FAA Is Accused of Ignoring Security Lapses," New York Times, February 27, 2002.

29 Pear, "Congress Moves to Protect Federal Whistleblowers."

30 Catherine Rampell, "Whistle-blowers tell of Cost of Conscience," USA Today, November 24, 2006.

31 Grassley, Chuck, "Government Protection: Amending the Whistleblower Protection Act to Make it More Effective," Insight Magazine, February 2, 1998.

32 Ibid.

33 Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, "Statement in Support of Complaint of Prohibited Personnel Practices Against U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch," March 3, 2005, http://www.peer.org/docs/osc/2005_3_3_osc_complaint.pdf.

34 Lachance v. White, 174 F.3d 1378 (Fed. Cir. 1999).

35 Rampell, "Whistle-blowers tell of Cost of Conscience."

36 See the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index for 2001 through 2006 at http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi.

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