There are few genuinely uncontroversial ideas in American politics. But here is one: Corruption is bad. Another: Someone should really do something about corruption.
According to a Chapman University poll released last fall, “corruption of government officials” ranks as the single most ubiquitous American fear, ahead of “polluted drinking water,” “North Korea using weapons,” and “not having enough money for the future.” Public trust in government has been mired “near historically low levels” for a decade, according to the Pew Research Center.
The parade of outrages from the Trump administration (Kellyanne Conway hawking Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt securing cheap housing from an energy lobbyist’s spouse, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s admission that he only took meetings from lobbyists who contributed to his congressional campaigns, etc.) have sharpened the attention Americans ― or at least, liberals ― are giving government ethics.
But Trump didn’t invent the undue influence of special interests over policymaking, however innovative his administration has been. President Barack Obama’s Treasury Department deferred to big banks on its signature anti-foreclosure initiative, and Obama’s Education Department often prioritized the interests of student loan contractors over students.
“We can’t just address money in politics. We have to address money in government.”
And yet there is almost no energy anywhere in Washington devoted to either studying or overcoming the subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of corruption in American political life. Entire think tanks are devoted to tax policy, foreign policy, world peace, human rights, libertarianism, and whatever Google wants ― but anti-corruption work is generally relegated to a few scholars recycling the same ideas about campaign finance reform that have been floating around for decades. Even think tanks that specialize in international corruption create the impression that it’s predominantly a problem that exists overseas.
This paucity of serious work is not an accident. Think tanks themselves are meant to influence the political process, and think tanks have to get their funding somewhere. Some of the worst Washington corruption scandals in recent years have involved think tanks leveraging their reputations to help corporate donors.
So the latest policy proposal from the liberal-leaning Roosevelt Institute deserves special attention. Authored by incoming federal trade commissioner Rohit Chopra as he awaited Senate confirmation for his new post, the paper marks the first comprehensive attempt to rethink federal anti-corruption policy in years ― maybe since the Watergate era. Instead of focusing on campaign contributions and elections, Chopra takes a look at the way special interests exercise undue influence over the federal bureaucracy and the broader policy debate in Washington.
“We can’t just address money in politics,” Chopra told HuffPost. “We have to address money in government.”
Most of the anti-corruption infrastructure in Washington was created in response to the Watergate scandals. Chopra thinks that infrastructure is too diffuse, weak and compromised by the chains of command that discourage serious oversight. The Office of Government Ethics was established in 1979, but can’t bring either civil or criminal enforcement actions for misconduct. Almost every federal agency has an independent inspector general’s office to investigate various improprieties. But IGs are appointed by the president, and most presidents aren’t terribly eager to unearth problems in their own administrations. “Good IGs are few and far between,” Chopra says.
In the Roosevelt paper, he proposes the creation of a new Public Integrity Protection Agency, or PIPA, to centralize and streamline the anti-corruption oversight that is currently dispersed throughout the federal bureaucracy. It’s an idea similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ― where Chopra previously served as an assistant director ― which consolidated the regulatory power previously spread across five different federal financial regulators.
Like other federal regulators, the PIPA would be empowered to bring enforcement actions in federal court, to issue fines against agencies or individuals and to remove rogue employees from government.
“We’ve long known that government agencies can be captured by corporations and special interests,” says Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog. “This particular paper is an important contribution, and other efforts are coalescing across the country as people try to figure out what can be accomplished in a bipartisan manner.”
The new PIPA wouldn’t just be responsible for policing the bureaucracy. It would also have jurisdiction over think tanks, advocacy groups and other organizations that seek to influence the political process. The PIPA could propose and enforce new rules on funding disclosure, making clear to lawmakers, regulators and the public when organizations are speaking on behalf of particular donors.
Chopra would also empower the PIPA to “slow down” the revolving door between regulated industries and the agencies that regulate them, imposing new restrictions on officials who enter or leave public office. The specifics would be up to the agency, but the idea would be to prevent someone from, say, leaving a big bank to become a bank regulator and write weak rules.
“Since the 1970s, corporations have become more sophisticated about spending money in ways that are not considered lobbying,” notes Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, another liberal-leaning think tank. “That includes hiring people who are coming out of government and relying on their social networks as assets.”
“Since the 1970s, corporations have become more sophisticated about spending money in ways that are not considered lobbying.”
Insulating PIPA itself from partisan pressures would be an obvious priority, since the agency would exercise tremendous power over the executive branch. Chopra suggests having a director appointed for a lengthy term ― seven to 10 years ― and being selected through a process that involves all three branches of the federal government. The Supreme Court could present a slate of potential nominees to the president, who would select a director who would then be subject to Senate confirmation.
The scope of PIPA’s regulatory authority would also be tailored to the First Amendment ― big donors would still be able to give freely to think tanks and other organizations, and working at a bank couldn’t be a lifetime ban on government service. But plenty of activities would still be eligible for oversight, from think tank funding disclosures to stock trading by federal employees.
“There is a lot more money spent on influence than official statistics on lobbying reveal,” Chopra says. “When I was at the Education Department, I saw firsthand how government contractors seemed to be calling the shots.”
None of these ideas are going to be implemented anytime soon. As campaign finance reform advocates can attest, it’s hard to convince members of Congress to reform a system that put them in power. And even anti-corruption experts are reluctant to criticize the existing system under the current administration, lest they undermine the few IGs that are actually doing good work.
But Washington seems to be changing. In the past few weeks, multiple senators have endorsed ambitious policy ideas that seemed unthinkable just a few years or even months ago. The Roosevelt Institute paper could be the start of a new conversation about clean government.
“We need to revisit government institutions broadly to make clear that not only is Donald Trump’s corruption unacceptable, but the type of banal corruption that predated him is also unacceptable,” Hauser told HuffPost.