Corruption in American Government: A Comprehensive Overview


Corruption is a persistent problem in governments around the world, and the United States is no exception. Corruption can erode trust in institutions and impede government functions. The United States scored a 67 on the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, its worst score since the inception of the index in 1995. Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” Corruption can take many forms, such as bribery, embezzlement, and quid pro quo. Examining the most prominent examples of possible corruption in the United States may provide insight into whether these concerns are valid.

One example of corruption is stock trading by government officials. Members of Congress are allowed to trade public stocks, but the STOCK Act of 2012 prevents trading based on inside information, and congresspeople have to disclose any transactions by themselves or immediate family members valued at $1,000 or more within 45 days. However, between 2019 and 2021, 97 members of Congress traded companies influenced by their committees. Critics argue that the law is not comprehensive enough in preventing members of Congress from using legislative resources for personal gain. The Wall Street Journal also found suspicious trades early in the COVID-19 pandemic by officials at Health and Human Services and other health agencies. While internal ethics boards cleared these officials of wrongdoing, the timing of these trades has drawn criticism. In the finance sector, several top Federal Reserve officials stepped down after being exposed for trading U.S. stocks while making decisions on U.S. financial policy, breaking the Fed’s ethics rules. However, a comprehensive study on the trading performance of U.S. Senators and Members of the House of Representatives from January 2012 to December 2020 did not reveal superior investment performance over the market.

Another area where political corruption can manifest is in campaign finance. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC struck down several FEC restrictions on campaign finance, resulting in the permittance of unlimited corporate and individual donations to “independent” political organizations known as Super PACs. In the 2020 election, Super PACs spent $2.1 billion. These organizations can coordinate with political campaigns and bypass transparency requirements of traditional campaign donations. While bribery laws prevent lawmakers from explicitly helping corporations in exchange for payment, corporations spending millions of dollars in support of a political candidate raises questions about their motivations. Corrupt transactions using Super PACs are often kept out of public view, helped by the lack of transparency within their structure.

Lack of oversight can enable corruption among government officials. The government response to COVID-19 came with an unprecedented lack of oversight. An estimated $76 billion of the $800 billion handed out in the Paycheck Protection Program as part of the 2020 CARES Act was lost to fraud, as borrowers inflated the number of employees or created shell companies to receive this money. In the interest of getting money out fast, lenders did very little to verify applications, despite concerns of corruption. Transparency and accountability must return to government spending following the pandemic.

While the U.S. still has strong anti-corruption laws and these laws are still enforced in U.S. courts, corruption is a pervasive problem. President Biden’s public commitment to fighting corruption is a step in the right direction, but stronger anti-corruption measures are needed to reverse this worrying trend.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some recent notable cases of political corruption in the U.S.?

Political corruption in the United States has been a significant issue for many years. Some of the most recent notable cases of political corruption in the U.S. include the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, which involved several wealthy parents paying bribes to get their children into prestigious universities. Another prominent case was the 2020 scandal involving the misuse of COVID-19 relief funds by several politicians.

How does political corruption manifest in today’s American government?

Political corruption can manifest in various ways in today’s American government. One of the most common forms of political corruption is the misuse of public funds by government officials for personal gain. This can include embezzlement, bribery, and kickbacks. Another way political corruption manifests is through the manipulation of political campaigns and elections, such as gerrymandering and voter suppression.

What has been the impact of corruption on the U.S. justice system?

Corruption has had a significant impact on the U.S. justice system, leading to a lack of trust in the system and a failure to hold corrupt officials accountable. Corruption can result in wrongful convictions, as well as the failure to prosecute guilty parties. Additionally, corruption can lead to a lack of resources for law enforcement agencies, making it more difficult to combat crime effectively.

What are the primary causes behind corruption within the U.S. government?

The primary causes behind corruption within the U.S. government include a lack of transparency and oversight, as well as the influence of money in politics. Additionally, a lack of accountability for corrupt officials can contribute to a culture of corruption within government agencies.

How does the United States rank on the global corruption index?

The United States has historically ranked relatively well on the global corruption index. However, recent years have seen a decline in the country’s ranking, with the U.S. dropping from 16th to 25th place in the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index. This decline is largely attributed to the perception of corruption in the U.S. government and political system.

What measures are being taken to combat corruption in America?

Several measures are being taken to combat corruption in America, including increased transparency and accountability measures for government officials. Additionally, there are efforts to limit the influence of money in politics, such as campaign finance reform. Law enforcement agencies are also working to crack down on corruption, with increased investigations and prosecutions of corrupt officials.

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