U.S. Tough. But Transparent?

National Journal

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Sure, the United States has the world's biggest economy and the mightiest military. But the fairest or most transparent government? Not by a long shot, according to new data on corruption perceptions from Transparency International.

The study found 18 other countries rank higher in fighting public sector corruption despite laws, policies, and promises by politicians to limit lobbying and fight government corruption.

In fact, nearly four years after President Obama pledged to make his administration “the most open and transparent in history,” Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index shows the U.S. government is seen as more corrupt than more than a dozen other countries -- including Singapore, Iceland, Britain, and Hong Kong.

The index scores countries based on surveys of experts and businesspeople inside and outside respective nations on a 0 to 100 scale, with cleaner governments scoring higher. The United States was scored at 73, while the leaders -- Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand-- tied at 90.

Alan Larson, the chairman of Transparency International/USA, thinks “Americans should be concerned” with the country's current standing, especially given the United States is often held up as an example for developing nations that are trying to build a more transparent government.

“If the United States was ranked 19th in terms of our defense preparedness, or if we were ranked 19th in terms of the competitiveness of our economy, this would be an alarm bell,” he said Wednesday.

In recent years, Congress has taken several steps toward stopping corruption in government, passing laws that prevent favorable government contracts and limit gifts from lobbyists. The Dodd-Frank financial regulation law also attempted to put federal limits on waste on Wall Street.

While these have been positive steps, perceptions of the U.S. government still have room for improvement. For example, some areas of the country were accused of voter suppression in this last election, while the Obama administration has faced controversies ranging from the “Fast and Furious” to the Benghazi attack.

Even so, Larson earlier this year extended the group’s integrity award to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her actions on the international stage, saying he hoped her successor followed the same principles.

“The secretary of state not only understood the importance of the corruption issue, but she has also taken steps to integrate the fight against corruption in the heart of U.S. foreign policy,” Larson continued.

Corruption, at its root, can be furthered by immense poverty or lingering violence. Fittingly, countries like Afghanistan and Somalia are rated as some of the most corrupt in the world. Whereas countries that are more developed and with more wealth, like those in Scandinavia, are seen as less corrupt. Huguette Labelle, the chairwoman of board of Transparency International, called the money laundering and tax evasion seen in struggling countries as “a major cancer.”

The U.S. is still in the top-20 of ranked countries on the index, as both Larson and Labelle said the U.S. has acted as a global leader in the fight against corruption, and has been a key adviser for certain Latin American countries, Russia and China. Laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which prohibits bribery to foreign officials, and support of international groups like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also boosts America’s standing.

And while Larson says the U.S. can do more, like passing a law that would disclose personal financial interests of public officials, he said Obama has generally kept his promise for a transparent government.

“I think the president has done a lot of things that are very consistent with that promise,” he said. “I think there has been a very strong focus on open government in the United States.”

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