Scandal and Corruption in Congress

Cover of Scandal and Corruption in Congress


Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Part I Thoughts on and Action Against Corruption


Corruption is a fundamental concern for all political regimes, but particularly for republics where power is vested primarily in a legislative body. While political thinkers across times and places have grappled with this perennial problem, this chapter focuses on the modern American republic and its founders. The authors begin with a brief historical sketch that illustrates the continuity and evolution of corruption discourse, spanning the distance between ancient political philosophy and modern political science. Turning to the American founding, and focusing particularly on the debates at the Constitutional Convention and the essays of The Federalist, the authors show how the framers of the US Constitution engaged with this tradition as they confronted the threat of corruption head on. Although these early American documents provide an ambiguous definition of corruption, the authors endeavor to parse the separate but intertwined meanings of corruption: constitutional, institutional, and moral. While the framers' system draws upon both ancient and modern approaches, their final position is that correct institutional design can provide the solution to political corruption. Ultimately for the framers, this comes down to the design of the legislature and its relationship to the other branches. The authors suggest that while contemporary readers may find much to be dissatisfied with in the framers' proposed solutions, their subtle and wide-ranging conceptualization of the problem of corruption might usefully inform contemporary theory building in this area.


It should come as no surprise that Americans believe corruption dominates the US political system and, in particular, that members of Congress are in the pockets of wealthy special interests and do not represent the people's views. Among other things, this has led to a gradual decrease in public confidence in government, trust in political institutions, and demands for anti-corruption reforms. Yet, calls for congressional reform are not new. What is unusual is the degree to which the political institutions, particularly Congress, have become unpopular; the extent American's believe the system is out of balance; and the people's distaste for democracy. As public perceptions of political corruption deepen, how is Congress responding to these concerns? Recent events indicate genuine attempts to solve, or at least reduce, the appearance of government corruption. For example, in the 2018 midterm elections, many political candidates signaled a willingness to address the public's grievances. In fact, the newly elected House of Representatives created and introduced legislation that addressed sweeping congressional corruption. This chapter aims to identify and trace congressional reform attempts such as banning lobbyists from fundraising, restrictions on the revolving door for politicians and job hunting disclosures, and other structural solutions considered important to prevent corruption. In particular, the author uses a historical lens to uncover and assess past and current attempts to fix congressional corruption.

Part II Preventing Punishment: Skirting Unethical Behavior


During the 2020 election cycle, 2,276 super PACs spent over $2.1 billion in federal elections. This chapter argues that changes made to the US campaign finance system brought about by the Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and v. FEC (2010) cases have destabilized the American political system by fueling tensions between right-wing and left-wing populist factions and by contributing to congressional corruption. By moving away from the political corruption standard and toward the free speech standard in Citizens United, polarizing wealthy mega-donors and dark money sources have come to play a dominant role in congressional elections. These cases also helped to contribute to a two-tiered campaign finance regulatory structure that distinguishes between campaign contributions given directly to federal candidates and political money contributed to super PACs to support or oppose federal candidates. In the 2020 congressional elections, PACs and super PACS outspent both major party candidates combined in 35 House and Senate races. Super PACs are serving as “shadow parties” by targeting competitive races for the purpose of swaying partisan control of Congress. This study also shows that an exceedingly high percentage of super PAC money is spent on negative advertising that further divides rather than unifies the nation. This chapter also highlights the corrupting influence of congressional leadership PACs and examines how super PACs have enabled foreign and dark money sources to illegally influence congressional campaigns.


Congress has spilled a good deal of ink in an attempt to support survivors of sexual assault and to prevent sexual violence from occuring. Legislation has been passed to address and prevent sexual assault in the military environment, higher education, and even within various government agencies. However, Congress has had a long and sordid history of burying incidents of sexual assault within its own halls. Prior to the #Metoo movement, Congress had a rather lackluster bill that provided minimal protection for those who were harassed or assaulted by a member of Congress and rarely held anyone accused accountable for their actions. In fact, the original Congressional Accountability Act included a fund that was used to pay off those who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault against a member of Congress. This chapter follows the legislative history of Congress with regard to the response to and prevention of sexual assault and its shocking lack of oversight of its own members who were frequently committing the same assaults that they were legislating against in other areas. The chapter also highlights the brave work of survivors of assault during their time in Congress, and the work of the #MeTooCongress movement, including current members of Congress, who helped to bring more accountability to Congress as a result of their efforts.

Part III Getting Caught


Most Americans are keenly aware of the costs political corruption extracts on system support, fiscal policies and economic development, and ultimately, government effectiveness. Among a list of 10 challenges facing the nation, the public ranks political corruption as the nation's biggest crisis Samussen (2019). Importantly, this issue cuts across partisan and demographic lines. Members of both political parties and independents consistently cite political corruption as a serious problem facing the country.

However, there is a specific kind of political corruption that is disturbing for the health of American democracy – the corruption of Congress. Most Americans appear to have little faith in lawmakers to do the right thing. Majorities believe that Congress is out of touch with average Americans, focused on the needs of special interests, and is corrupt. To be sure, political corruption severely undermines government legitimacy and weakens the development of political, economic, and social structures. This chapter considers the problem of congressional corruption including what forms it takes, where it arises, what anti-corruption reforms are needed, and what these findings mean for the future of American democracy. More specifically, this chapter will permit us to examine if and how perceptions of congressional corruption influence citizens' interactions with government and provide a better understanding of citizens' policy preferences for regulating political corruption.


In spite of escalating efforts to curb abuse, fraud, and corruption in Congress, members of Congress persist in violating the norms, rules, and laws that aim to ensure they behave ethically. This chapter combines qualitative and quantitative analysis to describe congressional corruption in the modern era. Case studies illustrate consequential financial scandals while also differentiating four categories of corrupt financial practices.

Existing datasets on congressional scandals span the time period from 1972 to 2010, and this chapter extends the dataset to 2018. The analysis next uses the dataset to answer important questions empirically. Which types of scandals occur more often? Have these scandals grown more common or less common over time? What are the consequences of financial scandals for representatives' careers as public servants?

Part IV Punishment and Repercussions


Members of Congress become involved in scandals on a regular basis. These range from personal imbroglios, like sexual affairs or substance abuse, to professional scandals like embezzlement of campaign funds, abuse of office, or insider trading. As a common feature of congressional life, scholars have shown that scandals frequently disrupt the electoral and legislative trajectories of representatives' careers.

However, it must be remembered that congressional offices are comprised of more than just an individual member. Congressional offices are legislative enterprises, and a representative's staff are integral to his or her political and lawmaking activities. Accordingly, studying how scandals relate to the careers of congressional staff is an important but overlooked topic.

In this chapter, the authors investigate the relationship between members' malfeasances and the careers of the staff around them. The authors combine a list of congressional scandals with a dataset that captures the turnover of staff in congressional offices. The chapter proceeds in four parts. First, the authors describe the structure of a congressional office and the relationship between members and their staff. Next, the authors provide an overview of scandals in Congress and what previous literature has uncovered about their effects. Third, the authors examine staffing patterns and turnover in offices hit by scandal, uncovering evidence that scandals are associated with staff departures. The authors end by considering how Congress as an institution could help to protect and support employees who are caught up in a member's poor choices.


The Framers of the Constitution granted Congress the ability to punish members for misconduct to protect the institution's integrity and dignity. However, with the low approval ratings of Congress and the widespread belief that those in government are corrupt, the institution has not done an excellent job at protecting its integrity. This chapter examines all allegations investigated by the House and Senate Ethics Committees to determine if Congress has systematically punished misconduct among members. Using data on 396 misconduct investigations in Congress, this research examines the institution's likelihood of punishing a member before and after implementing permanent ethics committees in the 90th Congress. The study reveals that Congress was more likely to systematically punish members for ethical misconduct before permanently installing ethics committees. However, in the contemporary period, the only type of misconduct a member is likely to be punished for is sexual harassment. Yet, the likelihood of being punished for sexual harassment falls when a member resigns or strategically retires.

Part V Scandal and Corruption: How Voters React


The vast majority of political scandals reported in the news center around male politicians. Yet, when women are involved, the nature of the scandals and coverage are sometimes different. Whereas powerful men are rarely, if ever, accused of “sleeping their way to the top,” powerful women frequently are. What happens when women politicians are involved in a scandal that blurs the lines between corruption – i.e., abuse of public authority for private gain – and a simple moral transgression? We designed an original survey experiment to assess participants’ responses to a Congresswoman having an extramarital affair with someone who has the power to advance her career. We find that participants are less likely to suggest they will punish Congresswomen at the polls for involvement in a simple “morality” scandal than for the scandal that blurred the line between a sex and corruption scandal. Moreover, we observe that political conservatives are more likely than liberals to punish the hypothetical Congresswoman, indicating that some voters' negative reactions to women politicians are motivated by concerns about sexual morality, and not necessarily by a perceived abuse of power for professional gain.


Are public officials held accountable for political scandals? Existing scholarship typically focuses on voters' response to scandals showing politicians are often punished at the polls for scandals. Specifically, they are more likely to be punished for the abuse of public office for personal gain than for scandals involving personal affairs. That said, not all politicians implicated in scandals seek reelection. Although difficult to observe, many politicians may be pushed out of office by their political party before they have an opportunity to stand for reelection – resigning or retiring before the next election. Others are appointed and consequently never stand for election. We collect a new dataset to understand how scandals affect politicians' careers and whether public officials are held accountable at other junctures. We trace the pathways of politicians implicated in scandals. We document the type and onset of scandals, individuals' reactions to scandals, and whether and when they leave office. Our novel data contribution provides rich descriptive statistics on corruption in the US Congress over time, with new insights into the conditions under which scandals end politicians' careers. The common patterns and significant differences revealed in these data suggest that the impact of scandals on public officials' careers may have less to do with the nature of the scandal or the specific actions undertaken by those implicated and may depend more on the actions of political parties.

Part VI Contrasting Corruption


Political corruption takes many forms across different countries and regions. The types of corruption that occur in American politics are drastically different from the clientelism, nepotism, and corrupt electoral practices that are seen in the developing world. This chapter will analyze three distinct cases of political corruption in Southeast Asian politics: clientelism in Cambodia, nepotism in Thailand, and the 2021 coup d'état in Myanmar. All three cases highlight the unique challenges facing developing democracies and reveal that, while political corruption affects all countries to a degree, distinct regional and cultural differences produce different forms of corruption in Southeast Asia than in the United States.


This chapter summarizes public perceptions and expert evaluations concerning elected officials' levels of corruption, focusing on comparisons between the United States and 29 European Union “plus” (EU+) countries (28 EU Member States in 2018 plus Switzerland). While surveys of corruption have become more widely available in recent years, there is still a lack of comparable data focusing on specific government institutions, rather than general perceptions of corruption by elected or public officials. Thus, this study takes advantage of four major sources of citizens' perceptions of corruption to develop an average score and ranking for a total of 30 countries: the 2017 Global Corruption Barometer, the 2017 Eurobarometer subtitled “Integration of Immigrants in the European Union and Corruption,” the 2016 International Social Survey Program's (ISSP) Module on the “Role of Government V,” and the Pew Research Center's 2018 “Global Attitudes & Trends Survey.” Three expert assessments of levels of corruption supplement these surveys: the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project's measure of legislative corruption, Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016, and the World Bank's 2016 Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) assessment of the “Control of Corruption.” Finally, the chapter tests several hypotheses derived from the literature using the various corruption measures as the dependent variable and finds that choosing a measure of corruption based on citizens' perceptions or expert evaluations is substantively important. Thus, one must exercise caution when selecting one type of measure over the other.

Cover of Scandal and Corruption in Congress
Publication date