Is Trump Administration Corruption a Winning Issue for Democrats this November?

The corruption of the Trump administration is bad news for the United States—will it also prove to be bad news (politically) for Trump’s Republican Party allies? A number of astute political commentators have recently argued that the answer is yes. Most notably, Jonathan Chait published an article last week making the case that “corruption … is Trump’s greatest political liability,” and that even though Trump himself is not on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections, it would be wise politics for the Democrats to focus on the corruption of the Trump administration in their quest to retake one or both chambers of Congress.

Chait notes, as an initial matter, that despite Trump’s historic unpopularity, Democrats face two interrelated challenges: First, there’s just so much negative news about Trump—from the Russia investigation to his racism and misogyny to the lurid revelations regarding his crude attempts to cover up an affair with an adult film actress—that it’s hard to focus on any one thing. Second, and more importantly, the majority of Trump’s supporters already knew back when they voted for him that he was a crass, crude, adulterous bully and bigot–which means that pointing out his infidelity, his bullying, and his bigotry now isn’t likely to have much impact. (The Russia investigation is another matter, but Chait suggest that it’s too abstract and complex for most voters.) Corruption, according to Chait, is the one story that could move the needle, even with Trump supporters. Chait’s reasoning (presented in a somewhat different order from his original article) runs as follows: Continue reading

India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

Can Sri Lanka Clean Up Its Elections?

Schools bags, school books, seed and fertilizer, clothes, sewing machines, clocks, calendars, and mobile phones – these are just some of the items that were distributed to the public during the 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential election campaign as “election bribes”. Indeed, this election was plagued by widespread violations of election law and the blatant misuse of state resources, including the illegal display of cut-outs, distribution of money during political meetings, the use of vehicles belonging to state institutions for propaganda purposes, and the construction of illegal election offices. Moreover, overall spending on election activities by the two main candidates was colossal. Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (the losing candidate) is reported to have spent over 2 billion Rupees (approximately US$13 million) of public funds on his advertising campaign alone, excluding the cost of production, while the winning candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, is reported to have had a budget of 676 million Rupees (approximately US$ 4.4 million) for electronic and print media.

In this context, reports that the Cabinet of Sri Lanka has unanimously approved a proposal to amend the country’s election laws in order to place more controls on campaign-related expenditures is good news. Such reform would address a gaping void in the existing legal framework: although Sri Lanka has laws prohibiting vote-buying and similar practices, there are currently no laws regulating campaign finance. The specifics of the approved Cabinet Memorandum are still not publicly available, and it is therefore not yet possible to offer a detailed evaluation of the proposed changes. Nonetheless, given what we already know about election campaigns in Sri Lanka—especially regarding the corruption risks associated with the lack of adequate regulation—it is possible to offer a few general observations and recommendations. Continue reading

Governor Brown’s Missed Opportunity to Promote Political Transparency and Fight Trumpian Corruption

Last month, Republicans announced their plan for a comprehensive overhaul of the United States federal tax code, the first in decades. In characteristic fashion, President Trump promised, “I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit.” To clarify his point, he added, “I think very, very strongly, there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.” Lest those statements left any doubt, Trump later claimed, “I’m doing the right thing and it’s not good for me, believe me.” Notwithstanding the President’s promises, a New York Times analysis found that Trump could save over a billion dollars if his plan were to be passed into law. Seemingly responding to this reality, Trump later amended his sales pitch by claiming that “everybody benefits” from tax reform.

Tax reform fits squarely into the third category of conflicts tracked by this blog: government regulatory and policy decisions that benefit Trump and his family businesses. Americans deserve to know how the President would personally stand to gain if his proposal became law. Yet the extent of Trump’s conflict of interest remains unknown, and unknowable, because of his widely-criticized refusal to release his tax returns.

Unfortunately, California Governor Jerry Brown squandered an opportunity to force Trump to shed some light on his personal finances when he vetoed the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, which had passed both houses of the state legislature with overwhelming support. The Act would have required all aspiring Presidential candidates to provide their tax returns to the California Secretary of State (who would then publish them online) before the candidate’s name could appear on the California primary election ballot. In his veto message, Governor Brown explained that while he “recognize[d] the political attractiveness—even the merits—of getting President Trump’s tax returns,” he worried about the “political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner.” Brown identified two specific concerns about the bill: its constitutionality and the potential “slippery slope” it might create.

Brown’s arguments ring hollow. They seem particularly unjustified in a time in which state action is one of the few viable bulwarks against Trump’s corruption. Fortunately, other states, including Massachusetts and New York, are considering similar proposals. Those states can do better than California. Here’s why they should: Continue reading

In Defense of Judicial Elections

Many critics, including on this blog, have argued for abolishing judicial elections, partly on the grounds that judicial elections open the door to judicial corruption. These critics worry that elected judges cannot apply the law neutrally because they will be influenced by those who got them to their position and by the desire to stay there. But these risks are both exaggerated and fairy easy to control. Judicial elections actually promote legitimacy and responsiveness, and reduce opportunities for political gamesmanship. Ultimately, judicial elections can help curb judicial corruption.

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Guest Post: Anticorruption Enforcement Is the Key to Democratic Consolidation–Not the Other Way Around

GAB is delighted to welcome Cristina Nicolescu-Waggonner, visiting professor of Political Science at Pomona College and Scripps College, Claremont, to contribute the following guest post, drawn from material in her new book, No Rule of Law, No Democracy:

It is fashionable to argue that the only way to root out systemic corruption is to establish a political system characterized by genuine democratic accountability and the rule of law. Unfortunately, corruption – specifically the conflicts of interest of political and judicial leaders – does not allow for this sort of development. True, there may be democracy, but in the presence of widespread corruption it will remain in a perpetual state of unconsolidated democracy, without true rule of law. And in such weak democracies, the electoral process stimulates rather than discourages corruption: Eager to win and short on cash, politicians make deals with businesses and misappropriate public funds to finance campaigns, a vicious cycle that starts political tenure with illicit means. Different from lobbying, this illegal activity puts the breaks on rule of law reform. Corrupt politicians, afraid of retribution, do not reform or establish enforcement mechanisms: supervisory commissions, integrity agencies, anticorruption institutions, genuinely independent courts, whistleblower protection, etc. This dilemma is exemplified by the Czech Republic, which does well on various international democracy and rule-of-law indexes, but in fact is a corruption hotbed, with politicians, members of the judiciary, and business people involved in a web of misappropriation of public funds—partly for personal enrichment, but more importantly for election and re-election. The same vicious cycle is prevalent in new democracies all over the world, from Brazil to Romania to South Korea to Mexico to Tunisia: Corruption negatively affects the process of democratization and stalls it before democracy can have a chance to fight corruption.

So, what can we do? Continue reading

The OAS Did Not Do Enough to Intervene in Nicaragua’s Corrupt Election

Last Sunday, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega won his third term in office, alongside his running mate—who also happens to be his wife—Rosario Murillo. For months, critics have been calling out the Nicaraguan election as a classic example of a corrupt, rigged election. The voting system was entirely controlled by Ortega’s party. The husband-wife ticket ran unopposed, and not for lack of actual opposition within the country. Indeed, over the summer, the Ortega-influenced Supreme Court blocked an opposition candidate from running against the incumbent. Though there were protests within the country expressing disapproval of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime, it is difficult to say how much opposition there was to the election because the reported number of votes cast was surely inflated by the Ortega administration.

This hardly came as a surprise, as this type of one-sided election is nothing new in Nicaragua. What might be more of a surprise is the apparent lack of outrage, or even concern, by the international community, particularly the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional body that is tasked with, among many other goals, promoting democracy in Latin America. In mid-October, the OAS published a press release that noted the OAS was going to enter into a “dialogue” with the government of Nicaragua concerning the country’s electoral process. There were no further details in the press release, and the “constructive exchange” between the organization and Ortega’s government did not seem to go anywhere. The press release didn’t even explicitly say that Nicaragua’s election was corrupt or undemocratic. The OAS did send election observers to Nicaragua, but OAS election observation missions these days are mostly a formality—the OAS sends observers to nearly every Latin American election, and these missions are notoriously ineffective, ranging from 20 to 100 observers and lasting only 20 days on average. In the case of Nicaragua’s election, the observers were present for just three days.

Even though the OAS has only limited power, it is nonetheless capable of delivering strong, symbolic messages in the face of corrupt, anti-democratic institutions. The OAS has a long history of issuing reports, especially those that highlight human rights abuses, and the OAS has condemned subversion of the democratic process in other countries, such as Venezuela. Even if purely symbolic, a pronouncement condemning the Nicaraguan election would demonstrate that the regional coalition denounces corrupt practices, and such symbolism could help support internal protestors or critics who might otherwise feel alone. Yet the OAS failed to do so, choosing instead to issue a half-hearted, ambiguous press release . Why?

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