Last August, Colombia held a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures. Despite the fact that six of these measures had previously been proposed in, but failed to pass out of, the lower house of the legislature, popular support for the measures was overwhelming: each measure received 99% “Yes” votes. The referendum did not pass, however, because even though more people voted “yes” on the referendum than voted for the current President, under Colombian law the referendum would only pass if a quorum of 12.1 million citizens voted, and the 11.6 million voters who turned out fell short of that number. Nonetheless, proponents of the referendum declared it a success because it has put public pressure on Colombia’s political leaders to implement these measures. And indeed, President Duque has convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018.
Is this a good idea? It’s certainly the case that Colombia needs to do more to combat corruption, which is estimated to cost Colombian taxpayers at least $17 billion a year. But it’s not clear that all of the proposed solutions, though doubtless well-intended, are good public policy. I won’t attempt a comprehensive review of all seven measures here. I’ll put to one side discussion of those measures that focus on improving transparency (for example, by publicizing government budgets, legislators’ voting records, and public officials’ tax returns and asset declarations) or on making penalties more severe (for example, requiring those convicted of corruption to serve their full sentences, and nullifying government contracts with parties convicted of corruption). Rather, I want to address two measures that target Colombian legislators: one of these measures would impose a three-term limit, while the other would substantially cut legislators’ pay.
These two measures appear to reflect understandable public anger at how legislators have abused their positions for private gain. But this retributive impulse may produce bad policy. Indeed, both term limits and salary cuts are likely to prove counterproductive in the fight against corruption in Colombia.
- Term limits. Many anticorruption organizations have called for legislative term limits, on the logic that limiting the time legislators and other public officials can remain in office erodes their ability to build relationships with special interests and solicit bribes. However, term limits may also lead to more corruption, for three reasons. First, once officials are in their last term, they no longer have to worry about their re-election chances, and without that democratic check, legislators may be more inclined to engage in corrupt activities because they no longer have to earn the public’s vote. Second, legislators who know they will only be in office for a relatively short period of time may adopt the mindset of grabbing what they can while they can, without as much concern for long-term consequences. When politicians know there’s a possibility they could build a long career in government, they may be take a longer-term view. Third, introducing relatively short term limits can increase legislative turnover and instability, and this can make it easier for special interest groups to “capture” legislators. Many legislators are not experts in all policy areas when they come into office, and therefore often rely on information provided by outside stakeholders to make decisions. Thus, legislators with limited experience may be more reliant on special interests than career politicians, as the latter can build up their own expertise over time, leaving them potentially less susceptible to outside influence and more independent in their decision-making.
- Cutting legislative pay. The pay cut proposed by the referendum would reduce the legislator pay cap from 40 times Colombia’s average salary to 25 times the average salary—a 40% salary cut for lawmakers, who currently make the equivalent of US$124,000 per year. It is unclear if this measure is meant to combat corruption, or is just a form of retribution against elected officials, given the perception that most or all of them are tainted by corruption. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that paying public officials, including legislators, a low salary can increase the chances of corruption, as low-paid public officials and civil servants have stronger incentives to supplement their official salaries by soliciting bribes or misappropriating public funds (see here, here, and here, but see a potential counterexample here). While Columbian lawmakers earn very high incomes by Colombian standards and would still be wealthy under this new scheme, most people who experience a sudden 40% drop in income would feel pressure to find some way to make up the difference and maintain their previous standard of living. Thus, this measure may in fact increase a legislator’s motivation to engage in corrupt activity.
Overall, while the Colombian anticorruption referendum represented a significant movement in the fight against corruption in Colombia, it seems that perhaps retributive impulses may have led to the inclusion of certain measures that will prove counterproductive, at least with respect to fighting corruption.