Do Individual U.S. Senators Manipulate the Timing of FCPA Enforcement Actions? (Spoiler: No.)

Is enforcement of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) improperly politicized? The notion that it is has gained traction in some circles, particularly in countries with multinational firms that have been sanctioned by U.S. authorities for FCPA violations, such as France and Brazil. The usual claim by those who assert that FCPA enforcement is politicized is that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) deploys the FCPA as a kind of protectionist weapon against foreign multinationals that compete with US firms. But a recent working paper by two business school professors (one American and one Chinese) claims to have found evidence for a different sort or FCPA politicization. According to this paper, individual U.S. Senators exert behind-the-scenes influence over the DOJ to manipulate the timing of FCPA enforcement actions against foreign corporations. More specifically, the paper argues that when a Senator is up for reelection, he or she will influence the DOJ to announce an enforcement action against a foreign company before, rather than after, the election. Doing so, the authors suggest, helps the Senator’s reelection chances by imposing a cost on a foreign company that competes with domestic firms in the Senator’s state.

I confess that when I first saw this paper a few weeks ago, I didn’t take it too seriously, because the central argument seemed so obviously detached from reality. (I also didn’t have time to dig into the details of the empirical methods, which are somewhat involved.) But the paper seems to generated a bit of buzz—including a Tweet from one of the best and most respected economists who works on corruption-related issues, which specifically asked me and a few others for our reactions to some of the “provocative” evidence presented in the paper. So I took a closer look. Continue reading