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The Hill (Op-Ed): Confronting corruption is essential for democracy

December 9, 2016
Op-Ed & Article
The Hill (Op-Ed): Confronting corruption is essential for democracy

BY REPS. PETER J. ROSKAM (R-ILL.) AND DAVID PRICE (D-N.C.) - 

It’s no secret that the U.S. electorate is significantly polarized and that significant bipartisan cooperation will be a major challenge. But as a conservative Republican from the Midwest and a progressive Democrat from the South, we both understand the stake our country has in the effective functioning of democratic institutions around the world. And on the occasion of the United Nations’ International Anti-Corruption Day, we are reminded that corruption is probably the greatest systemic threat faced by democracies and aspiring democracies today.

Together, we lead the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), a bipartisan commission of the House of Representatives that partners with elected legislative bodies around the world to improve their responsiveness and effectiveness. Through peer-to-peer exchanges, trainings, and other assistance for staff and members of parliament, HDP helps strengthen parliaments in 18 partner democracies. Our work has taken us to many of the world’s more fragile democracies – from Burma/Myanmar to Tunisia to Ukraine – and we have seen firsthand that our best defense against tyranny, authoritarianism, and terrorism is the development of transparent, representative, inclusive, and accountable democratic institutions.

The partner countries we have visited face great challenges to improving democracy – from bringing former military rivals together in a unified government, to addressing military and economic threats from border states. In addition, nearly all of these developing democracies suffer systemic corruption that threatens to undermine their legitimacy and their ability to improve their countries.

We have seen firsthand that corruption corrodes the state’s ability to provide services, undermines political processes and the rule of law, and exacerbates inequality. In country after country, these forces have stymied democratization and economic growth.  Further, corruption is a major driver – and recruiting tool – for violent extremists around the world.

Bribery, by undermining fairness and government processes, effectively throws a stick into the spokes of the state’s fiscal capacity. Estimates show that the cost of corruption equals more than 5 percent of global GDP, with over $1 trillion paid in bribes each year; 10 percent -25 percent of value of public contracts may be lost to corruption. This hobbles the ability of governments to provide critical protection for its citizens and foster development and economic growth.

Corruption particularly threatens vulnerable populations. Recent research suggests that corruption typically leads to a disproportionate allocation of public resources and services to wealthier citizens. In the worst cases, political elites may even design policies to enrich themselves at the expense of the poorer populations for whom these interventions are nominally intended.

By eroding trust in democratically-elected governments, corruption sets the stage for authoritarian leaders to assert their will and enables violent extremist groups to recruit disenfranchised youth offering an alternative to “corrupt” democracy.

HDP has been directly involved in confronting many forms of corruption. We have worked with Members of Parliament and their staffs to help establish robust frameworks for public contracting, assisted in the adoption of codes of ethics for parliamentarians, and fostered transparency and public accountability in the workings of legislatures. Just this week, we hosted a delegation of Members of Parliament from Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Burma/Myanmar, and Mongolia to improve how they engage their citizens and frame legislation.

We do not undertake this work from a perspective of self-righteousness, understanding instead that corruption has been and remains an endemic challenge for democratic governments, including our own. Our experience suggests that moralizing, hortatory approaches are often off-putting and ineffective. We must directly address the need for ethics rules and enforcement, but we also understand that much of what we do to professionalize legislative operations and to make them more transparent and accountable will reduce the susceptibility of members and their institutions to corrupt practices.

As we begin to develop foreign policy priorities for a new Congress, there remains strong support for addressing corruption through the support of democratic institutions.  Fighting corruption through rule of law and democratic process is the bulwark against the spread of authoritarianism and extremism. This is one issue that with great potential for bipartisan cooperation. To that end, we will look for opportunities to cooperate with the new administration and aligned development organizations.

Reps. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.) and David Price (D-N.C.) are, respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Democracy Partnership.