Indictments, investigations and a congressman’s guilty plea for taking millions in bribes have left most Americans convinced that political corruption is a deeply rooted problem, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
Missteps and misconduct that have reached into all levels of government — from the White House and Congress to governors’ offices in Connecticut and Ohio — have helped drive 88 percent of those surveyed to say the problem is a serious one.
Scandal has touched all politicians. President Bush’s approval rating was 42 percent, slightly better than his standing in the previous AP-Ipsos poll, due in part to improvements in the economy. Still, 57 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Bush’s handling of the presidency.
More ominous as the 2006 elections loom was the public’s opinion of the Republican-controlled Congress.
Sixty-five percent of respondents disapproved of lawmakers’ work in Washington and only 31 percent approved, the worst numbers since AP-Ipsos began asking the question in January.
Several of those interviewed said corruption was endemic to a political system awash in colossal amounts of lobbying money and beset by an insatiable demand for campaign cash.
“It’s kind of the nature of politics, working with money and finance, things happen every day that are questionable,” said David Innerebner, a conservative-leaning missionary from Hayward, Wis.
‘Everything seems to be corrupted’
In 2004, federal lobbyists spent $2.1 billion — the equivalent of the gross domestic product of the Republic of Congo or the amount the U.S. government spends annually on energy assistance for low-income Americans. In that same year, candidates pursuing the presidency and seats in Congress spent more than $3 billion.
“It seems like everything seems to be corrupted,” said Sylvia Kind, a dietitian from Akron, Ohio.
Some of the experts who make their careers focused on government ethics and reform were struck by the strong public perception of politicians.
“From the local mayor or sheriff all the way up to the president, it means people have a real distrust of their government,” said Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics campaign watchdog group.
Added Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics rules and campaign finance: “The message to politicians is to get their house in order.”
Names in the news
People questioned in the survey had no trouble reciting the names associated with offenses and inquiries:
- Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, faces money laundering charges.
- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is under a federal investigation for a well-timed stock sale.
- I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, has been indicted on five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI in the outing of a CIA officer.
DeLay, Frist and Libby have said they have done nothing wrong.
- Last month, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for steering government work to defense contractors. His list of excess included money for a Rolls-Royce, antique furniture and two Laser Shot shooting simulators.
- A Justice Department investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen Republicans and Democrats and Bush administration officials.
“They’re so power hungry they’d do anything to stay in power,” said Renee Becher, a 51-year-old homemaker from Dahlonega, Ga. “They’ve made our country become like Rome.”
The AP-Ipsos survey found that 91 percent of women consider corruption a serious problem, compared with 84 percent of men. Overall, 67 percent said the number of people involved in corruption ranges from moderate to a lot.
The ethical edge
Democrats were considered more ethical by 36 percent, while 33 percent cited Republicans. That difference is within the poll’s 3 percent margin of error.
Some 40 percent of women said Democrats were more ethical than Republicans, while 32 percent of men offered a similar view.
“I think there are those in the Republican Party that have their problems and I think it’s politically motivated that they bring these to the limelight,” said Paul Deshaies, a retired prison chaplain from Lancaster, Ohio.
The scandals could cost incumbents in next year’s election. The low regard for Congress nearly mirrors the numbers recorded in polls conducted in December 1993, several months before the Republican tidal wave that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House.
Worldwide, the United States gets higher marks. The 2005 index on corruption perceptions ranked the U.S. at 17, not far behind Germany, Hong Kong and Canada, according to Transparency International, a nongovernment global watchdog on corruption.