Dissolving Congress to Combat Corruption: Why a Short-Term Anticorruption Victory in Peru Isn’t Worth the Long-Term Cost

The “Car Wash” corruption scandal that started in Brazil has extended into surrounding Latin American countries, including Peru. All of Peru’s living presidents have been implicated in the scandal, with two currently awaiting trial on corruption charges, one in California fighting extradition, and one who ended his own life just as police entered his home to arrest him. The corruption scandal has also implicated members of Congress, including the head of Peru’s largest opposition party, Keiko Fujimori (daughter of the infamous former president Alberto Fujimori). To make matters worse, investigators have also uncovered an unrelated bribes-for-verdicts corruption scandal in the judiciary.

Peru’s current president, former Vice President Martin Vizcarra, assumed the presidency after his predecessor resigned over corruption allegations. Backed by overwhelming popular support in a national anticorruption referendum, President Vizcarra spent most of 2019 pushing an ambitious anticorruption agenda. His proposed reforms included a new law that bars members of Congress from seeking immediate reelection after one five-year term, transferring the power to lift a Member of Congress’s legislative immunity from Congress to the Supreme Court, and changing the system for appointing judges and prosecutors. On all of these proposals, Congress (controlled by an opposition party) has dragged its feet, likely for self-serving reasons. While Congress eventually passed some of these reforms, including the ban on re-election, the judicial anticorruption bill stalled. After several attempts to pass the bill, on September 30, 2019, Vizcarra took the drastic step of dissolving Congress—a move supported by 84% of Peruvians. Vizcarra issued a decree for a snap legislative election, which took place on January 26, 2020, and in which Peruvians elected a new Congress to finish the current constitutional term ending in 2021. Given the ongoing pandemic, this new Congress has, understandably, yet to fully address Vizcarra’s remaining anticorruption agenda.

It is often said that fighting entrenched corruption involves disrupting the political status quo. President Vizcarra’s decision to dissolve Congress was certainly disruptive—but not in a way that anticorruption advocates should celebrate. Whatever its short-term payoffs, this decision threatens to undermine Peru’s institutional checks and balances, leaving the country more vulnerable to corrupt actors in the long term.

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Where Should U.S. State Governments Put Their Anticorruption Agencies?

As other contributors on this blog have argued, U.S. states should assume a greater role in investigating and prosecuting corruption crimes, rather than leaving anticorruption enforcement efforts entirely to the federal government. But the call for a greater state role in anticorruption naturally invites a follow-up question: which office or unit within the state government should have principal responsibility for anticorruption? For starters, should the state have a specialized unit dedicated to investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes? And if so, where within the state government should that unit be located?

There are a range of potential answers to these questions. A 50-state survey from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) finds that although the vast majority of states have some kind of anticorruption commission, roughly half have no specialized anticorruption unit dedicated to investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes. States that do have such units house them in one of three places: (1) the state attorney general’s office, (2) local prosecutors’ offices, or (3) the state police.

State Unit Dedicated to Prosecuting Corruption?

Source: Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School

Having a specialized unit to prosecute corruption promotes the development of the expertise critical to successfully prosecuting corruption cases. Maintaining specialized anticorruption units also ensures resources are dedicated specifically to combating corruption, fosters norms of (and a reputation for) impartiality, and enhances deterrence by increasing officials’ perception that they’ll get caught if they do something wrong. But where a specialized anticorruption unit is located within state government affects the degree to which these benefits will be realized. In this respect, the three models of current state practice, as discussed in the CAPI survey and illustrated in the above map, differ along two dimensions: (1) the level of government (state or local); and (2) the nature of the law enforcement agency (prosecutors or police). An examination of both dimensions indicates that state-level prosecutors—state attorneys general—are best-equipped to house specialized anticorruption units.

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When Should We Put Anticorruption Agencies in the Constitution?

To fight corruption more effectively, many countries have created specialized government institutions that focus primarily on corruption issues. Most common are specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) with investigative and/or prosecutorial functions, although some countries have also created specialized anticorruption courts, special coordinating bodies, or other entities. This trend has generated a great deal of debate, both about whether to create such specialized bodies at all and about how they should be designed (for example, whether ACAs should combine prosecutorial and investigative power). Absent from much of this debate, however, is a discussion of the means countries should use to create these specialized bodies—in particular, whether these specialized anticorruption bodies should be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, or should be created by ordinary law.

Anticorruption bodies vary quite a bit on the extent to which they are constitutionalized. Most existing ACAs and other anticorruption institutions—including many considered highly successful—are not mandated by the constitution. For example, Indonesia’s anticorruption agency (the KPK) and its anticorruption courts (the Tipikor courts) were created by ordinary legislation, as was Belgium’s anticorruption investigation body and Spain’s anticorruption prosecutor’s office. However, in other countries specialized anticorruption bodies are explicitly established (or required) by the constitution. For example, the Philippines’ anticorruption court, the Sandiganbayan, is enshrined in that country’s 1987 constitution. Indeed, the trend (if one can be discerned) seems to be in the direction of constitutionalization. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in 2014, includes a specialized anticorruption investigation body. Egypt’s 2014 constitution similarly includes a specialized anticorruption prosecutor. Mexico’s 2015 amendments constitutionalized three types of anticorruption agencies (investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial), as well as a coordinating body.

But should these agencies be constitutionalized? And if so, when? Continue reading