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Business as usual in Washington?

For decades, a majority of Americans have held the view that their representatives in government are corrupt. It is tempting, therefore, to view the current administration through the lens of “politics-as-usual,” just another instance of granting special interests access to the halls of government via lobbying or lavish campaign donations.

However, the Trump Presidency is accused of mixing public and private interests in ways that stand apart from those used by previous US administrations. While not necessarily illegal, Trump’s conflicts of interest appear to involve the persistent intrusion into government activities of the president and his family’s private financial interests. He visits his own properties on a more-than-weekly basis, thereby encouraging those who wish to do business with him to do the same; his family members have advertised the Trump brands via government websites and in person; Trump has failed to divest himself of the hotel down the street from the White House, thereby encouraging lobbyists and foreign diplomats to curry favor by renting its rooms or event spaces.

While these behaviors may be no more troubling to a large swath of the electorate in the United States than revolving door lobbyists or campaign finance run amok, they should be. Some legal scholars contend that cumulatively, Trump’s actions may well violate the emoluments clause of the US Constitution. Taken individually, however, none of his actions seem likely to be illegal or corrupt. Nonetheless, many of them blur the line between private wealth accumulation and public policy in ways that are almost unprecedented for leaders of modern Western democracies.

Donald Trump is not the first Western head of government to be accused of exploiting public office to benefit his business interests. The best-known precedent is Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former Prime Minister. Recent research shows that, for example, companies paid inflated prices to advertise on the Berlusconi-owned Mediaset television network while he was in office (particularly among firms in highly regulated industries that would benefit the most from government favors). The parallels to overpriced Trump Hotel rooms or Trump licensing agreements are noteworthy. But Berlusconi—like Trump—is a conspicuous anomaly: for the most part, in the world’s wealthy countries, business people stick to making money by running their businesses rather than by entering politics.

Berlusconi in his private jet, in the 1980s by unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are nations where business interests and political power are deeply intertwined and where political leaders chronically fail to honor the distinction between the pursuit of personal financial gain and the pursuit of political power. But these are not countries that the United States would like to emulate. They are the old-fashioned, poor, single-party autocracies, where political leaders siphon off public monies into Swiss bank accounts and devote considerable public resources to the growth of their personal financial and business concerns. Consider a few of the more extreme cases, like Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea and Africa’s longest serving ruler, who has bought luxury homes in France and whose son spent millions of government money on a lifestyle that includes a property in Malibu and a Gulfstream jet; or Robert Mugabe, the 92-year old President of Zimbabwe, a country that according to Transparency International loses $1 billion annually to corruption. The citizens of these countries—who are poor to begin with—are worse off as a result, and these nations collectively provide a lesson that American voters should keep in mind in working to hold their current government accountable, especially when they cast their ballots at their next opportunity to enter the voting booth.

More broadly, if America’s laws allow for business-government relations that Americans view as too cozy, let’s change the laws to bring them more in line with public opinion on what constitutes as corruption. Americans, whatever their partisan allegiances, want to elect representatives who put the interests of voters ahead of their own personal interests, and we need to find better ways to do this, perhaps by placing legal limits on campaign contributions and bringing the executive under the same conflict-of-interest regulations that apply to the rest of the government.

Featured image credit: “US Capitol Buidling” by Mark Thomas. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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