The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Corruption by Another Name? Or Just Ordinary Law-Making?

Last December, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The debate over this law—characterized as the most “consequential tax legislation in three decades”—and the reaction to its passage was polarized and acrimonious. This is usually the case with tax debates, perhaps especially in the U.S. What was more notable and less typical, though, was the extent to which critics of the Act used the language of corruption to characterize both the Act’s substance and the process through which it was passed. (See here, here, here, and here). For example:

  • At several stages of the process, the votes of key Republican Senators seem to have been secured (some might say “purchased”) with special provisions. In fact, Texas Senator John Cornyn, the majority whip, openly admitted that provisions designed to appeal to individual Republican Senators were included in the final bill in an effort to “cobble together the votes we needed to get this bill passed.” That by itself may not be so unusual, even though many would find it distasteful. But in some cases, the special provisions were not only ones that these Senators favored on ideological grounds, or that would benefit their constituents (and hence the Senators’ re-election hopes); these special provisions also provided substantial personal financial benefits to the holdout Senators. For example, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson was the first Republican to oppose the bill, on the basis that it would double the gap between corporate tax rates and the rates applicable to individuals receiving income from “pass-through entities”. Ultimately, the bill was amended to accommodate Senator Johnson’s concern by incorporating a 20% tax deduction for such entities. As it happens, Senator Johnson himself has millions of dollars invested in four such entities. Or consider Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, a critic of early versions of the bill who had asserted that he would not approve of adding even “one penny” to the “rapidly growing national debt.” Yet Corker ended up voting for a revised version of the bill that would add over $1 trillion to the deficit. What accounts for the change of heart? Critics point to the fact that the revised bill also included a new tax break that would increase Senator Corker’s personal income by up to $1.2 million every year (dubbed the #CorkerKickback on Twitter). Senator Corker claimed ignorance of how the bill would personally benefit him, though the fact that he reportedly earned a total of more than $8 million of income from the entities that were granted the tax break make this ignorance highly unlikely.
  • And then there’s President Trump. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act could reduce President Trump’s personal tax bill by tens of millions of dollars. President Trump reportedly earned between $41 million and $68 million of income from 25 pass-through entities (which were granted the new tax break which also benefited Corker). He has not divested, in any meaningful way, from his investments. He has also refused to release his taxes on the pretext that he cannot do so as he is under audit, even though no such rule exists. The passage of a tax bill that confers such enormous benefits on the President seems to many like a form of “legalized corruption.”
  • In addition, Republican Party leaders admitted that passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was necessary to ensure that the party continued to receive funding from its donors, who stood to gain millions of dollars in tax breaks—another quid pro quo of sorts. Indeed, the Republican Party has been unabashedly open about this, with Senator Lindsay Graham stating that if the party failed to push the tax bill through, “financial contributions will stop,” and Congressman Chris Collins justifying his support for the unpopular bill on the grounds that his “donors [were] basically saying, ‘Get this done or don’t ever call me again’.” That may not meet the legal definition of corruption in the United States, but to many voters and commentators it certainly seems corrupt.

Is “corruption” the right way to characterize the unsavory politics of the tax bill? Continue reading

Netanyahu’s Attempts to Undermine Police Recommendations May Be Dangerous for Israel

Israeli police have been investigating multiple corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for over a year. First, Netanyahu allegedly accepted extravagant gifts—such as expensive cigars, Champagne, and jewelry—from wealthy businessman Arnon Milchan in exchange for helping him secure a U.S. visa. Netanyahu is separately accused of striking a deal with the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, in which Netanyahu would push legislation that would curb competition from a rival paper, and in return Yediot Ahronoth would provide more favorable coverage of Netanyahu’s administration.

Recently, the Israeli police issued a recommendation that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and a breach of trust in the two corruption cases. Perhaps anticipating this potential outcome, last December Netanyahu downplayed the significance of police recommendations, asserting that the “vast majority of police recommendations end in nothing.” Also last December, the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) passed, at the urging of Netanyahu’s supporters, a new Police Recommendations Law placing further restrictions on police recommendations for indictments. Though public pressure ultimately led to modifications so that the bill would not apply to the current investigations, it was also seen as prompted in large part by concerns about the possibility, now realized, that the police would recommend charges against the Prime Minister.

What, exactly, is so significant about the police recommendation in Israeli investigations into corruption and other matters? To get a better sense of what’s going on, it’s useful to take a step back and consider what Israel’s police recommendations are and whether they serve a useful function.

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Anticorruption Bibliography–March 2018 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

Rooting Out Malaysia’s Deep-Seated Corruption Requires Fundamental Political Reform

In a previous post, I wrote that to rebuild credibility and clean house in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, Malaysia needs to give the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission independent prosecutorial power. Even that much-needed reform, however, would leave Malaysia with a long way to go in its anticorruption efforts. The biggest obstacle to real improvement in Malaysia’s fight against corruption is not technical, but political: the chokehold that a single party—the National Front (Barisan Nasional or “BN”)—has on Malaysian politics.

The BN is a coalition party dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and it has been in power since the 1970s. In a country with deep ethnic divisions, the party has managed to cling to power by perpetuating a far-reaching system of preferential treatment for the ethnic Malay majority. As a result, UMNO has a lock on the Malay vote – and therefore on general elections. Furthermore, Malay-owned firms get first priority for the award of government contracts, which perpetuates a culture of cronyism. UMNO leadership has a symbiotic relationship with an elite class of Malay businesspeople. On top of all this, districts in Malaysia are gerrymandered to give more weight to rural Malay areas. In the most recent general election, in 2013, the opposition party won the popular vote but did not win enough parliamentary seats to take power.

A party with a near-guaranteed place at the top has little incentive to clean up corruption. As visibly corrupt as UMNO may be, Malay voters are forced to weigh punishing UNMO corruption against preserving their privileges in every sector of life, from education to home-buying to business. Until there are significant changes in Malaysia’s political structure, anticorruption efforts are likely to be piecemeal and ultimately insignificant. A more structural change is required if there is to be any hope for rooting out corruption in Malaysia.

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Corruption in the Trump Administration: A Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

As readers of this blog are well aware, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion here regarding concerns about corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration (including our regularly-updated page that tracks credible allegations of such corruption and conflicts). I recently had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of these issues on “The Scholars’ Circle,” a radio program hosted by Maria Armoudian (and to which I’ve had the opportunity to contribute once before). I was joined for the panel by Professor Richard Gordon, an expert in money laundering who directs the Case Western Financial Integrity Institute. A recording of the program can be found here. Some highlights of the discussion:

  • We started with an overview of the various kinds of allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration—basically, an oral summary of some of the highlights of our Trump Corruption Tracker (from about 1:30 to about 7:55 on the recording of the broadcast).
  • Professor Gordon followed up on this by providing an overview of money laundering allegations against Trump associates and Trump businesses, principally before the election, which prompted some back-and-forth discussion of these issues (7:56-17:30).
  • We then proceeded to discuss what Ms. Armoudian called the “So What?” question: Why these issues are important, and what their larger adverse consequences might be (17:30-22:32).
  • This was followed by some consideration of why the allegations of corruption and associated misbehavior don’t appear to bother President Trump’s supporters, and what, if anything, might prompt them to care more about these issues (22:33-28:56).
  • Ms. Armoundian then posed the provocative question of whether the Trump administration might portend the a more general spread of the “culture of corruption” throughout American politics and society, along with the erosion of rule-of-law norms and values—making U.S. politics resemble more closely what we’ve seen in other countries, such as Kenya, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, etc. (29:54-42:23).
  • The discussion then turned to the broader question of the problems of American democracy and political institutions that allowed Trump to win both the nomination and the general election, and whether Trump an aberration or sign of things to come (42:24-49:14).
  • Ms. Armoudian concluded the conversation by asking about what, if anything can be done to preserve the traditional norms and values of American political institutions and to prevent a slide into a culture of corruption in the United States. This part of the conversation went well beyond corruption, and touched on the importance of making sure, more generally, that political institutions work, and are perceived as working, as well as trying to cultivate a health political culture (49:15-56:28).

I hope the discussion may be of interest to some of our readers out there.

Conference on Human Rights and Asset Recovery

The Open Society Foundations hosts a conference this Friday, March 16, at its Washington office on the human rights issues raised when stolen assets are returned.  During the morning session new strategies for addressing corruption before UN treaty bodies and the complementarity of international laws on human rights and criminal justice governing asset recovery will be discussed.  In the afternoon, speakers will examine the role of asset-holding states and international organizations in ensuring accountability in asset recovery and return and civil society’s role. Previously unpublicized information on the return of stolen assets to Kazakhstan will be reviewed for the lessons it offers.

Click here for more on the agenda and a list of speakers.  Those wishing to attend should RSVP to Joshua Russell.

Maybe Half-Measures Aren’t Half Bad: Reflecting on Ghana’s Anticorruption Progress

Ghana, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, has long struggled with serious public corruption problems. Yet there have recently been encouraging signs of progress. Back in 2009, during the administration of then-President John Atta Mills, Ghana began formulating an ambitious, long-term National Anti-Corruption Action Plan (NACAP) with 120 goals. After President Mills’ death, work on the plan continued under President John Mahama; although Parliamentary approval was not required, President Mills nonetheless submitted the final version of the plan to Parliament, which ultimately approved the plan in 2014. Commitment to the plan appears as strong as ever despite a change of party with the ascension of President Nana Akufo-Addo in January 2017.

Of course, lots of countries develop ambitious-sounding national anticorruption strategies, and in many cases these strategies don’t achieve much. (More cynical critics argue that these plans are often not intended to actually do anything other than to create the appearance that the problem is being taken seriously.) But according to a report released last fall by Princeton University’s Institute for Successful Societies, there are encouraging signs that Ghana’s anticorruption plan is working, despite some significant setbacks and limitations. Because those of us who work on anticorruption, especially in challenging environments, are so starved for good news and anxious for lessons learned, it’s worth considering some of the factors that seem to have contributed to the relative success of Ghana’s recent efforts. Continue reading