That Donald Trump got away with being the anti-corruption candidate is even more infuriating when that not only does he have a long history of shady dealings and ripoffs, but that the Republican Party is openly pro-corruption.
For decades in its foreign policy and development programs, the United States has pressed for measures to reduce corruption. Its efforts stretched across administrations from President George H.W. Bush to President Barack Obama and were part of a broader foreign policy agenda to promote democracy, accountability and transparency, and to level the playing field for businesses and countries seeking investment. As former Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell famously said in 2002, “Capital is a coward. It flees from corruption and bad policies, conflict and unpredictability.”
But in a little-noticed vote last week in the Senate, the United States took a step back from that longstanding commitment to transparency and to the citizens suffering under corrupt, unaccountable governments. The vote of 52 to 47 would scrap a 2010 bi-partisan addition to the Dodd Frank Act, called section 1504. The law, known by shorthand for its two sponsors Democratic Senator Ben Cardin (MD) and Republican Senator Richard Lugar (IN), required oil, gas and mining companies that are listed on U.S. stock exchanges to declare to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) payments made to foreign governments in their investments overseas. The change is now on the President’s desk waiting for his approval.
The risks of its repeal are real and deserve attention. For one, by allowing gas, oil and mining companies to bribe with impunity with no effective government or citizen oversight, the Congress is rolling back decades of the U.S.’s commitment to its democracy, human rights and liberal agenda that have been a central part of its foreign policy since President Ronald Reagan. Without SEC oversight, the likelihood increases that indefinite, unaccountable funds will flow to autocratic leaders with which they can line their pockets and the pockets of their cronies, and use those funds to repress their populations. It will also make it more difficult for the U.S. to speak out against cases of corruption internationally and maintain its commitment to anti-corruption treaties like the OECD’s Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.
Second, giving resource extraction executives the right to bribe at will behind closed doors places at severe risk the international and domestic commitments many states have to protect their communities from abusive extractive practices. One of those is the International Labor Organizations Convention 169 to which—in the Western Hemisphere alone—Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, among others, are signatories. The convention guarantees indigenous and, in some cases, Afro-descendant communities the right to be consulted when state policies will affect their cultural heritage; that right has commonly been interpreted to include land. Throughout these countries, governments are starting to put in place—in varying degrees—processes to ensure that indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are respectfully consulted over resource extraction investments in the lands that many of them have occupied for centuries.
But hey, Rex Tillerson having to respect the rights of indigenous people in Ecuador is the true outrage! Of course, this isn’t just the world view of the American right. It’s also that of conservatives in nations from Romania to South Korea. But whereas anti-corruption protests led to the eviction of the Korean president and threatens the government of Romania, in the U.S., conservative voters couldn’t care less. And while you might say that this corruption is only for U.S. companies operating in foreign nations, I have absolutely no confidence that a Romanian-type law legalizing at home would move conservative voters to outrage at all. I don’t think they would care. They’d probably support it just because it makes liberals mad. And what higher goal exists?