On December 9, International Anti-Corruption Day, President Joe Biden will launch the Summit for Democracy. The stated goal of the summit is to bring together leaders from over 100 countries to tackle authoritarianism, fight corruption, and advance human rights around the world.
But the summit feels like a hollow attempt, given how little effort the Biden administration has put into fighting corruption at home.
When Biden said in June that “countering corruption” would be “a core United States national security interest,” he promised that the U.S. would lead this fight by example.
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Several months later, the administration is falling short when it comes to championing critical anti-corruption reforms at home. The administration hasn’t prioritized anti-corruption legislation like the Protecting Our Democracy Act or more targeted reform efforts focused on strengthening independent watchdogs or making it safer for whistleblowers to report alleged federal corruption.
We’ve also yet to see the Biden administration enthusiastically support legislative reforms that help prevent the abuse of office for private gain, such as requiring divestiture for the president and vice president, slowing down revolving doors between the government and private sector, and giving sharper teeth to enforcement and penalization of ethics violations by public officials.
Finally, the administration hasn’t prioritized legislation to counteract the gross attempts to suppress the votes of countless Americans across the country. It should go without saying that voting rights are at the core of accountable government.
Biden’s lack of focus on domestic corruption is particularly perplexing given that it’s an issue Americans care greatly about.
A recent Project On Government Oversight survey of likely voters in two battleground states, Michigan and Ohio, makes that clear. In that survey, 65% of likely voters across the political spectrum identified government corruption as a “very big problem” facing the country, and the issue resonated more than any other topic (including infrastructure, COVID-19, jobs, and climate change). While 71% of voters polled in these states agree that “corruption in government isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem,” the White House should take note that 69% of Democratic voters in Michigan and Ohio say corruption has gotten worse (39%) or stayed the same (30%) in 2021.
The White House has issued executive orders to address corruption, including an ethics order stronger than any issued by the four presidents who preceded Biden, but these won’t guarantee lasting change. Executive orders can be easily undone by the next administration.
While Biden can’t guarantee passage of any reforms by Congress, it is hard to see anti-corruption bills passing without him championing them as publicly as he does his economic agenda. And we need lasting, comprehensive anti-corruption legislation to address the systemic issues our country faces.
While corruption and government ethics held the spotlight during the last administration, the tremendous cracks in our anti-corruption infrastructure it exposed aren’t new. They existed previously, waiting to be exploited. And they continue to exist now.
Unless the Biden administration starts to vociferously and effectively champion major legislative reforms at home that tackle the weaknesses in our anti-corruption laws, both on International Anti-Corruption Day and going forward, we could see our own country fall into the grip of authoritarianism.
It’s hard to see how the U.S. is leading by example when it comes to corruption if Biden doesn’t step up and use his bully pulpit to champion comprehensive anti-corruption reform at home.
International audiences need to see the president’s anti-corruption rhetoric matched by real reform. Few anti-corruption activists in places like the Ukraine or Guatemala will appreciate being reminded by Biden about the issues in their countries when the U.S. is hobbled by its own corruption and anti-democratic tendencies.
According to a recent Pew survey, the majority of those living in 17 advanced countries surveyed no longer see the U.S. as a model democracy, even if the majority once did. This should be a major red flag for the Biden administration.
The charge against global anti-corruption efforts needs to start at home. Without a stronger effort to tackle corruption within our own government, Biden’s global effort could fall flat.