Corruption, Political

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CORRUPTION, POLITICAL. Three major areas of political corruption are worth noting. First, bribery is clearly an example. Second, some people claim that certain government practices such as patronage, while legal, might be suspect. This definition sets a very high standard for political propriety. The conflict-of-interest definition—use of public office for personal gain, usually money—is a third aspect of political corruption. This is an ethical issue dealing with the premise that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Corruption, therefore, is a catchall expression for illegal as well as ethically questionable behaviors. Ironically, the very nature of federalism contributed to the potential for corruption. Since power corrupts, the challenge is to require accountability at all levels of government and to create virtuous and ethical citizens.

History of Political Corruption

From the beginnings of European settlement to the American Revolution, the colonies witnessed some outrageous instances of corruption. Royal governors and corporate placemen used their official positions to enrich themselves in every possible way. Many of them considered this a privilege of their offices. The growing discontent with British rule in the eighteenth century contributed to the later American definition of conflict of interest, while the idea of natural rights contributed to the notion of a public interest and welfare.

Land, a large source of wealth in the colonies, contributed to schemes and speculation and bribery of both local and royal politicians. Legal and illegal struggles over land added to the colonial desire for independence. Later, of course, this struggle would be expressed as honest graft (inside information about future land use), bribing over zoning ordinations, and tax abatement, a legal but highly unethical policy.

Officials were not the only ones to skirt the law in the American colonies. Colonial merchants and rebels, in their opposition to the Acts of Trade and Navigation, ignored tariff duties and mercantile regulations. Arguing against taxation without representation, these groups simply circumvented the navigation laws, since they did not express "the will of the people."

Politics and the American Revolution shaped this constant argument over corruption. Americans, with their New World innocence and historical exceptionalism, sought a society free of "European" contamination. The goal of classical republicanism became the American Revolution's political discourse. The taming of corruption (through the separation of powers and checks and balances) was a major feature of the federal Constitution of 1787. The founders were seriously worried about the baleful efforts of corruption on the republic's future. They had reason to be concerned.

But by the early nineteenth century, the political culture had changed. Commercial republicanism considered the marketplace to be fair and just and replaced classical republicanism, with its virtuous polis. America was moving west and becoming urban and industrial. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "democratic" corruption had replaced "aristocratic" corruption. With the rise of the common man, with the American emphasis on rugged individualism, with every man having his price, the opportunities for boodle were vast. Despite the founders' efforts to restrict corruption in government, the truth was that governmental contracts at all levels provided major possibilities for official malfeasance. From corrupt agents in the Bureau of Indian Affairs to colorful scandals of the Ulysses S. Grant era such as the CrÉdit Mobilier, the "salary grab" act, and the Whiskey Ring, the times were alive with spoilsmen. Even at the height of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln worried about the War Department under Simon Cameron's guidance, replacing him in 1862 with Edwin M. Stanton. The disputed election of 1876, in which Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but won the presidency with one more electoral vote than Samuel Tilden, was the jewel of electoral political corruption in the nineteenth century, unrivaled until the presidential election of 2000. In the latter the issue was not just that George W. Bush won the election but how it was conducted in Florida and other states, damaging the public trust by allowing that the election of the president of the United States was only "politics."

The local governmental agencies often outperformed their federal counterparts when it came to corruption. Tammany Hall in New York City and similar organizations created political machines that ran on illegal contributions from businesses and other interest groups. Until about 1945 the urban political machine was a standard feature of politics, but the growth of the suburbs and other factors limited its power after that point.


The history of political corruption is also the history of reform. Starting with the Pendleton Act of 1883, which created a federal civil service, the excesses of patronage were checked. (To be sure, the desire for a governmental appointment still shaped party discipline and organization for many individuals.) By the beginning of the twentieth century the issue of political contributions to candidates was legislatively resolved. The direct election of U.S. senators provided a limited solution, and the Tillman Act of 1907 stopped banks and corporations from contributing to federal elections. Three years later, a federal law required congressional candidates and their organizations to report contributions and expenditures. But the laws have loopholes, as the post-Watergate years demonstrated: soft money, political action committees, and so forth.

The problem is that reform legislation in the area of political corruption occurs after a particular event or situation has already happened. Various interests can find a way through the new law. However, some improvement can be noted. As a result of the Teapot Dome affair and other corrupt behavior in President Warren G. Harding's administration, political contributions were more closely regulated in 1925. The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 was an advance; however, both Harry S. Truman's and Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidencies were plagued by questionable behavior regarding lobbyists.

While the Grant-era corruptions highlighted the nineteenth century, the Watergate affair (1972–1974) was the defining moment for political corruption in the twentieth century. Before that scandal the 1964 probe of Robert G. "Bobby" Baker, a secretary to the Senate Democratic Majority Leader, revealed a simple case of influence peddling and kickbacks to Baker, a self-styled wheeler-dealer. The legislative results were the Select Committees on Standards and Conduct for members of Congress and, by 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act. Reacting to the widespread corruption of Watergate, Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977), which disallowed gifts to foreign officials by American companies, and the Ethics in Government Act (1978), which created the position of independent counsel to investigate charges of governmental misconduct. The office of the independent counsel kept very busy during Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's presidencies, although it produced mixed results.

Meanwhile, the Koreagate scandal of 1976–1978, the Abscam scandal of 1978–1980, and the "Wedtech" affair of 1986 all dealt with the old-fashioned practices of kickbacks and the use of one's public office for private financial gain. Undoubtedly such incidents will continue in the twenty-first century, but their prosecution could be hampered by several Supreme Court decisions during the 1970s and 1980s. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978), and Federal Election Commission v. National Conservative Political Action Committee (1985), the Court ruled that earlier laws and regulations regarding campaign contributions violated the right of free speech guaranteed under the First Amendment. McNally v. United States (1987) greatly limited the use of mail-fraud statutes in charging local and state officials with corruption.


ABC-Clio. Crime and Punishment in America: A Historical Bibliography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio Information Services, 1984. Many excellent citations.

Amick, George. The American Way of Graft. Princeton, N.J.: Center for Analysis of Public Issues, 1976. An examination of institutional corruption at the state and local level.

Eisenstadt, Abraham S., Arj Hoogenboom, and Hans Trefousse, eds. Before Watergate: Problems of Corruption in American Society. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn College Press, 1978. Solid historical essays.

Drew, Elizabeth. The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 2000. A depressing narrative of the Clinton presidency and election finance reform.

Noonan, John T., Jr. Bribes. New York: Macmillan, 1984. A massive history of corruption from biblical times to the date of publication.

Summers, Mark W. The Plundering Generation: Corruption and the Crisis of the Union, 1849–1861. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A historical example showing that corruption and the perception of it have significant consequences.

Donald K.Pickens

See alsoLobbies ; Pendleton Act ; Political Action Commit-tees ; Political Scandals .