Americans today rank corruption of government officials as their top fear—even above fear of North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. Far from a new phenomenon, public trust in government has polled consistently low for over a decade. Newspapers report daily on elected officials who benefit personally from the policies they pass, regulators who once led the industrial giant they are meant to regulate, and public research bought and paid for by special interests. The perception that powerful interests can influence policy—much less the reality of this influence—distorts economic activity, frays our social fabric, and undermines our democracy.
In Unstacking the Deck: A New Agenda to Tame Corruption in Washington, Rohit Chopra and Julie Margetta Morgan describe the corrosive problem of money in government and outline an agenda to root out the soft corruption driving this deep distrust. While public debate has often focused on “money in politics”—the role of money in winning or losing elections—policymakers have paid less attention to “money in government”: the ways money influences government agencies to act for the benefit of special interests rather than for the public good.
The authors describe the scope of the current problem of corruption and identify four primary channels of influence to address: 1) personal profit from public service; 2) the revolving door—where individuals move between government service and special interests; 3) lackluster enforcement of existing rules and regulations; and 4) corruption of supposedly independent watchdogs, including think tanks, advocacy organizations, and the media.
The authors argue that these challenges are not out of our control. The report proposes a series of reforms that would amount to a massive ethics overhaul for the 21st century. The ethics agenda includes establishing a new agency to policy corruption; raising ethical standards for all public servants; slowing down the revolving door; empowering the public to more easily influence government action; and creating new mechanisms to highlight conflicts of interest.
The fundamental principles of our democracy and economy are deeply undermined by corruption in our government. Curbing corruption and institutionalizing practices that better align our government agencies with that of the public interest can help reverse the decades-long decay in Washington.