On Corruption, Agency Capture and Forest Service Experience

In comments on a recent post I noted that “corruption and bias are always in play” when dealing with high-level politics. Over at the Kaufmann Governance Post, Daniel Kaufmann has taken up a crusade to daylight and castigate what he calls “corruption,” moving it beyond more traditionally narrow framing as bribes, kickbacks, direct money payoffs, etc. In a post titled Capture and the Financial Crisis: An Elephant forcing a rethink of Corruption, Kaufmann says,

it makes sense to have a neutral and broader definition of corruption, akin to: “the privatization of public policy”. In addition of being a legally neutral definition, it moves beyond coarse manifestations of bureaucratic bribery, and it would encompass undue influence or capture of regulations and policies by narrow interests.

Kaufmann is particularly critical of undue influence of lobbyists and other “influence peddlers,” and notes:

the focus on corruption needs to move away from exclusive focus on the ‘abuse of public office’ and squarely acknowledge that corruption often involves collusion between the public and private (and at times outright capture by the private potentates).

What do you think? Does Kaufmann’s framing make sense? If so, Who ought we to have as Under Secretaries, as Agency Heads, etc? Or does might it be that some be dis-allowed from serving. If so, who? Or does it make any difference? Maybe an answer is that “we the people” ought to watch particularly closely those who have been “influence peddlers,” rather than banning them outright.

I have been particularly outraged that lobbyists have so much power in our country. And I believe far too much discourse and policy-making in the US revolves around industry and commerce, and too little around matters of “public interest.” Hence I was happy to see President Obama disallow “lobbyists” from filling the seats known as “political appointees.” Still, I wonder: Did it help?

I find it difficult to make a case that it is worse to have an industry lobbyist, i.e. Mark Rey as an Under Secretary who oversees the US Forest Service than to have a key corporate lawyer like John Crowell, from the same industry that by many accounts had already captured the Forest Service. In either case I find such appointments at least questionable. That is not to say that an individual from such backgrounds might not rise above said background, just that it seems unlikely that they would.

How might we do better in our politics? Unfortunately, we seem to be in one of those moments that Richard Hofstadter called “paranoid” in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Wikipedia link). In such moments neither side in the US two-party system will listen to the other side, and power-over rules the day—power-with is seldom seen or used.

[Note: The idea that the Forest Products Industry captured the Forest Service at a point in time, is somewhat appealing given how dominate Timber used to be as one of the “multiple uses.” But the idea was never totally true, and less true today than yesterday. Still there is/was enough “capture” to be wary of lobbyists from, and other advocates for a dominant industry to be key policy-makers for that agency. Even if “big timber” is in its twilight as per the Forest Service, “big recreation” is still very much and increasingly at center stage.]


  1. One very powerful lobby that is often overlooked is the environmental or Green. What started out as a grass roots in the 60’s and 70’s has evolved into multi-national groups with well funded lobbyists. Good bad or indifferent they are major players in forming FS policy.

    • The Enviros do now have a substantial lobby presence in DC. But they didn’t until the “crony capitalists” lobby groups gained power and presence in the halls of US power. My guess is that if the crony capitalist lobby problem could be solved, the environmentalist lobby money would largely dry up, leaving a much smaller environmental lobby to deal with a residual “public lands use” lobby. But that’s only a guess.

      Speaking of lobbying, I remember one day early in the Clinton Administration (1990?) when Jeff DeBonis (AFSEEE), Jeff Ruch (GAP) and I were sandwiched in between the big timber lobbyist meeting and the big environmentalist lobbyist meetings with Katy McGinty at CEQ. It proved to be an interesting moment, at least for me, being there at noon (on a”annual leave” from my government job) and watching a very young McGinty trying to deal with the power brokers, while wondering what to think of us. When I asked McGinty where I might find those Al Gore had tasked with “reinventing government” McGinty responded, “I thought that’s what you are doing.” We tried, and keep trying, but never seem to gain much traction.

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