Guest Post: Why the U.S. Congress Should Pass the CROOK Act

Today’s guest post is from Abigail Bellows, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an independent governance consultant. Ms. Bellows previously served in the U.S. Department of State, where she created and led the anticorruption portfolio in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

In countries long plagued by pervasive corruption, a wave of global protests is disrupting the political order. These protests, typically triggered by a corruption scandal, produce a brief upswing in political will and may result in the ouster of the current government. In fact, 10% of countries of countries around the world have experienced corruption-fueled political change over the last five years. These settings present historic opportunities to produce genuine, lasting reform. But to succeed, reformers must take advantage of political momentum before public interest dissipates or opponents regroup. During these windows of opportunity, U.S. support can play a valuable role, both because of the symbolic power of U.S. support and because of the scale and rigor of the technical assistance that the U.S. can provide. Yet all too often, the U.S. government is unable to respond sufficiently and quickly to support reformist governments during these crucial windows of opportunity. One of the main reasons is that the current U.S. anticorruption budget is too small ($115 million annually), too geographically rigid, and insufficiently flexible (given that programming is typically planned and budgeted two years in advance).

New legislation pending in the U.S. Congress—Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act—would help address these problems. The House version of the CROOK Act, which was introduced on July 18, 2019 by Representative Bill Keating (D-MA) and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), with support from the U.S. Helsinki Commission, passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 18. The companion Senate bill was introduced on December 11 by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and is awaiting review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the CROOK Act contains many measures that would strengthen U.S. anticorruption efforts, its centerpiece is the creation of an “Anti-Corruption Action Fund.” Continue reading

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