From the Abscam days to the present, political corruption in America appears to be all but inescapable. It is a societal problem in need of correction. However, it must be solved on an individual level.
On a cold February day, as relay runners carrying the Olympic torch passed through New York City en route to Lake Placid, nearby intelligence agents hurriedly worked to complete a secret, ongoing sting operation. News of their surreptitious probe had just leaked to the media, and the FBI, working out of a small office on Long Island, was still many weeks away from completing its undercover inquiry. Sweating under a spotlight and racing against the clock, the federal agency pushed paper and tied up loose ends before indicting its first government official in the fall of 1980. Over the next few months, the FBI charged dozens of public figures with accepting bribes and conspiracy. The alleged perpetrators hailed from city councils and congressional districts from across the Eastern Seaboard.
The two-year investigation, codenamed “Abscam,” operated under the guise of a fictitious company headed by an Arab sheikh, who was allegedly interested in investing oil money in the United States. The scheme, developed by a seasoned con-artist working with the FBI, first sought to unearth and expose white-collar corruption in the private sector. However, the project organically matured to ensnare public officials willing to accept money in exchange for political favors. In the end, after each defendant had had his day in court, a senator, six congressmen, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and an assortment of other government officials were found guilty of corruption.
Despite their success and ostensibly noble intentions, the FBI came under heavy criticism for employing what many people believed to be questionable methods during the investigation.
Some observers felt that the way in which agents actively went after government officials amounted to entrapment (or was, at the very least, unethical). Several of the politicians appealed their guilty verdict. Although all of the convictions were upheld by a higher court, the backlash to Abscam ultimately led to stricter regulations, limiting how the FBI could conduct future covert operations.
The fact that numerous high-level government officials would willingly partake in patently corrupt dealings, regardless of whether or not they were unjustly ensnared, should surprise precisely no one. Today, just like in the past, scandal and corruption saturate the Capitol. A mere spoonful of the crookedness from the last few years is enough to convince anyone that the venality of public officials is deep-rooted and widespread. Even without delving into the sexual misconduct of people like Roy Moore or Al Franken (in an effort to highlight political corruption specifically), Congress looks more like a prison-yard than a place of law and government.
However, corrupt legislators can be hard to take, and keep (see Skelos and Silver), down. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, who in 2015 was indicted on charges of conspiracy, bribery, and fraud, escaped conviction when his trial ended in a hung jury last week. As The Atlantic points out, guilty verdicts in cases of public corruption are becoming increasingly difficult to secure due to a narrowing of the laws that delineate exactly what is an “official act” of, for example, bribery. The mistrial does not mean that Mr. Menendez was found not guilty, though. The senator may very well face a retrial and is still being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee.
Of course, not all venal members of Congress are able to avoid conviction like Sen. Menendez. Just last Thursday, a member of the House of Representatives for over 20 years, Corrine Brown, had her sentencing hearing after being found guilty of fraud and conspiracy in May. Similarly, last year, former House Representative Chaka Fattah was convicted of bribery and fraud. The long-time congressman from Pennsylvania is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Levels of corruption vary around the globe. Typically, they are higher in poorer, less democratic countries. The United States is far from poor and boasts a healthy, robust democracy. Furthermore, Americans do not live in a clientelistic culture where quid pro quo relations are not only legal, but part and parcel of the politics. Public corruption in the U.S., it seems, stems from factors outside of macroeconomic considerations or the cultural-political structure itself.
A number of psycho-social reasons, working in combination or independent of one another, likely lie at the heart of why public officials, such as those caught by Abscam and their contemporary counterparts, exploited, and indeed continue to exploit, their position. Leslie Holmes, professor emeritus at the University of Melbourne, offers several psycho-social explanations for political corruption. Ultimately, seven seem to work in an American context:
Greed can drive a politician to rapaciously seek out and accept underhanded donations.
Ambition is inherently high in anyone that decides to run for public office.
A thirst for power, an offshoot of ambition, can narrow the vision of a spirited politician to view venality as a necessary evil and corruption as an acceptable shortcut to the top.
Crooked opportunities naturally present themselves to whomever controls the laws and levers in society.
The thrill of the game itself, surprisingly, can be enough for a bored, disillusioned bureaucrat to meet a shady briefcase-toting character in a back-alley.
Insecurity opens up a weak-willed person to almost anything.
While, lastly, pressure from peers and superiors can make even the most composed politician bend at the prospect of entering the in-crowd.
It seems, then, that political corruption (at least in the United States) emanates from nothing more than unchecked human nature; something only a well-calibrated moral compass and a strong constitution can effectively combat.