The Individual-Level Origins of Congressional Corruption Scandals

Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(4) 442 –454
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19850093
It is somewhat of an understatement that Congress is dis-
liked. Public approval of the institution continues to bump
along at an exceedingly low altitude. It seems reasonable to
believe that a series of important and highly publicized cor-
ruption scandals is at least somewhat to blame. Since 2000,
about a dozen members of Congress have been convicted of
crimes for what we generally think of as corruption.
Numerous federal legislators have been the subject of intense
media coverage and scrutiny from colleagues for their prom-
inent roles in episodes where there exist convincing claims
of malfeasance. A Gallup survey in September 2015 revealed
52% of respondents believed “most members” of Congress
are “corrupt.”
Political scientists are naturally drawn to explanations of
corruption and the scandals that surround it. The focus has
been mainly on effects, specifically electoral consequences.
Research finds that legislators caught in corruption are more
likely to retire voluntarily than those who are not (Brown,
2001; Groseclose & Krehbiel, 1994; Jacobson & Dimock,
1994) and those who seek reelection lose a substantial per-
centage of their expected vote share and are more likely to be
defeated than their peers (Basinger, 2013; Brown, 2006;
Hirano & Snyder, 2012; Peters & Welch, 1980; Welch &
Hibbing, 1997), even if the electoral costs of scandal have
been reduced in recent years (Hamel & Miller, 2019). These
members also find their congressional careers and legislative
effectiveness prematurely curtailed (Paschall, Sulkin, &
Bernhard, 2019).
The work on the causes of corruption is found largely in
the comparative politics and political economy literatures.
The findings point to a variety of antecedents, such as eco-
nomic inequality and poverty (Goel & Ram, 2013; Serra,
2006; Sims, Gong, & Ruppel, 2012; Uslaner, 2008), the lack
of a free press and general transparency in politics (Brunetti
& Weder, 2003; Sandholtz & Gray, 2003), the scope and
form of government (Bergh, Fink, & Ohrvall, 2017; Gerring
& Thacker, 2004; Goel & Nelson, 1998; Rose-Ackerman,
1999), certain types of electoral systems (Chang, 2005), reli-
gion and the lack of a colonial heritage (Paldam, 2001; Serra,
2006), and even the proportion of women holding office
(Esarey & Chirillo, 2013).
There is also a small but growing related literature on the
causes of corruption in the American states (Alt & Lassen,
2014; Glaeser & Saks, 2006; Goel & Nelson, 2011). For the
most part, these studies confirm those conducted about other
countries. States with strong democratic institutions, greater
economic equality, smaller governments, significant invest-
ment in enforcement, high levels of education, capitals close
to population centers, and more residents in nonmetropolitan
areas are generally less corrupt (Alt & Lassen, 2003, 2014;
Apergis, Dincer, & Payne, 2012; Campante & Do, 2014;
Dincer & Johnston, 2017; Glaeser & Saks, 2006; Goel &
Nelson, 1998, 2011).
850093APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19850093American Politics ResearchTaylor and Cobb
1North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew J. Taylor, Department of Political Science, School of Public and
International Affairs, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-
8102, USA.
The Individual-Level Origins of
Congressional Corruption Scandals
Andrew J. Taylor1 and Michael D. Cobb1
To date, the literature on corruption scandals in Congress focuses exclusively on their consequences. Using theory that
directs analyses of the causes of corruption scandals at the jurisdictional level in the American states and other countries,
we test a variety of hypotheses about which kinds of members of the House are more likely to be caught in these episodes.
We derive our hypotheses from three basic propositions about individual-level corruption—opportunity, culture, and target.
There is evidence to support them all. Members with cultivated relationships, in positions of power, and elected from
districts with traditions of or perceived tolerance for corruption are disproportionately scandalous. So, interestingly, are
some potentially marginalized legislators, particularly racial minorities. We explore the finding that Black members are
frequently associated with corruption scandals.
corruption, scandal, U.S. House

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