Corruption in the United States is the act of government officials abusing their political powers for private gain, typically through bribery or other methods, in the United States government. Corruption in the United States has been a perennial political issue, peaking in the Jacksonian era and the Gilded Age before declining with the reforms of the Progressive Era.

As of 2024 the United States scored 69 on a scale from 0 ("highly corrupt") to 100 ("very clean") according to Transparency International's 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index. When ranked by score, the United States ranked 24th among the 180 countries in the Index, where the country ranked first is perceived to have the most honest public sector.


18th century

Corruption in the United States dates back to the founding of the country. The American Revolution was, in part, a response to the perceived corruption of the British monarchy. Separation of powers was developed to enable accountability.[1] Freedom of association also served this end, allowing citizens to organize independently of the government. This was in contrast to some European powers at the time where all associations and economic activities were implicitly managed by the government.[2]

During the 1st United States Congress, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed several new economic initiatives that involved taxes, tariffs, debts, and a national bank. Fears that these proposals would lead to corruption grew so great that the Democratic-Republican Party was formed to oppose them.[2]

19th century

Corruption reemerged as a major theme in American politics in the 1824 United States presidential election, where Andrew Jackson ran as an anti-corruption candidate. The issue was only exacerbated by the controversial results of the election preventing Jackson's victory, known as the corrupt bargain. Following Jackson's victory in the next election, a dispute over the national bank again became relevant in the issue of corruption.[2]

In state governments, authorities would authorize corporate charters to authorize the creation of new corporations. These faced some resistance due to their potential for corruption. While they were generally used in ways that promoted the economic development of the states, there were instances of charters being given preferential treatment to political allies. The Albany Regency, for example, authorized charters for banks in exchange for political and financial support. This issue was eventually solved as state governments standardized the process of incorporation throughout the 1840s.[2]

The Gilded Age was a period of increased prosperity and growth in the United States. This growth resulted in a corresponding increase of corruption and bribery in the government and in business. The main issue of contention was the spoils system, in which government jobs were given in exchange for political support. This issue was addressed by civil service reform.[3]

The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant during the Gilded Age was mired with instances of corruption. Grant had been elected without political experience, and he had little ability to control or regulate the members of his government, who proceeded to take advantage of his inexperience.[1] Notable examples include the Whiskey Ring, the Star Route scandal, and the trader post scandal. The Crédit Mobilier scandal also became public information at this time.[4]

20th century

The Progressive Era was a period of anti-corruption fervor in the United States led by the progressive movement. During this time, political machines and monopolies were targeted and disestablished. Theodore Roosevelt was a major figure in the Progressive Era, leading the efforts of trustbusting.

The Teapot Dome scandal was a major instance of corruption during the Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall had accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for access to government petroleum reserves. After the corruption was discovered, Fall was sentenced to prison.[1]

Richard Nixon was notably the subject of multiple corruption allegations. While running for Vice President in 1952, Nixon famously gave a speech declaring that he accepted one gift, a dog named Checkers, and that he had no intention of returning it. During Nixon's presidency, he was implicated in the Watergate scandal.[5] Shortly before, his Vice President Spiro Agnew had been found guilty of tax fraud.[6]

In the 1970s, the FBI conducted the sting operation codenamed Abscam to uncover corruption in Congress. Seven members of Congress were convicted of bribery. In the 1980s, the Oklahoma county commissioners scandal resulted in the conviction of 230 people, the most people ever convicted in a public corruption case in the US.[7]

Contemporary corruption

The United States' perceived resistance to corruption has declined in recent years. On the Corruption Perceptions Index, which scores countries on a scale from 0 ("highly corrupt") to 100 ("very clean"), the United States' score dropped from 76 in 2015 to 67 in 2020 and 2021, the highest and lowest values that the country has reached in the 12 years that the current form of the Index has been compiled.[8] In 2019, Transparency International stated that the United States is "experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances", along with an "erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power", citing populism, nativism, and political polarization as factors that may increase corruption.[9]

In 2022 and 2023, the country's score rose to 69. When ranked by score, the United States ranked 24th among the 180 countries in the Index in both years. For comparison with worldwide scores, the best score on the 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index was 90 (ranked 1), the average score was 43, and the worst score was 11 (ranked 180).[8] For comparison with regional scores, the highest score among the countries of the Americas[Note 1] was 76 and the lowest score was 14.[10] Transparency International spoke approvingly in 2024 of how the federal and state courts have withstood attacks on their independence, although it found the weak ethics rules for the Supreme Court worrisome.[11]

The FBI is responsible for investigating corruption in the United States with several initiatives to investigate both domestic and foreign corruption, and it recognizes public corruption as its "top criminal investigative priority".[12]

In 2019, Stephen Walt argued that the United States was becoming increasingly corrupt, pointing to the Trump administration, the causes of the Great Recession, the failure of the Boeing 737 MAX, and the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal as examples. Walt argues that these examples show that corruption is a growing problem in the United States and in the longer term threaten the country's soft power.[13] The United States has been cited as a tax haven.[14][15] The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requires foreign governments to reveal American accounts abroad, but the US has no responsibility, legal or otherwise, to share information on non-Americans opening up accounts in the US. In 2016 one estimate placed the total offshore wealth in the US at $800 billion.[16]

Police corruption

Grand juries often decline to seek charges for U.S. police officers involved in violent activity due to the violent nature of policing, though some U.S. police have faced killing charges. Corruption cases and other non-violent crimes are more likely to be prosecuted.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela


  1. ^ a b c Genovese, Michael A. (2010). "Presidential Corruption". In Genovese, Michael A.; Farrar-Myers, Victoria A. (eds.). Corruption and American Politics. Cambria Press. pp. 135–176.
  2. ^ a b c d Wallis, John Joseph (2006). "The Concept of Systematic Corruption in American History". In Glaeser, Edward L.; Goldin, Claudia (eds.). Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America's Economic History. University of Chicago Press. pp. 23–62. ISBN 0226299570.
  3. ^ Nevins, Allan (1927). The Emergence of Modern America, 1865–1878. pp. 178–202.
  4. ^ "The Crédit Mobilier Scandal | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives". Retrieved December 28, 2015.
  5. ^ Marsh, Bill (October 30, 2005). "Ideas and Trends: When Criminal Charges Hit the White House". The New York Times. p. 4.4.
  6. ^ Time, October 22, 1973, "The Nation: The Fall of Spiro Agnew"
  7. ^ "Toll 230 as book closes on county commissioner scandal". The Oklahoman. February 3, 1984.
  8. ^ a b "Corruption Perceptions Index 2023: United States of America". Retrieved March 28, 2024.
  9. ^ "Americas: Weakening Democracy and Rise in Populism Hinder Anti-corruption Efforts". Transparency International. January 29, 2019. Retrieved February 24, 2019.
  10. ^ "Corruption Perceptions Index 2023: Americas". CPI2023_Map_Americas_EN.pdf. Retrieved March 28, 2024.
  11. ^ "CPI 2023 for the Americas: Lack of independent judiciary hinders the fight against corruption". Retrieved March 28, 2023.
  12. ^ "Public Corruption". Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  13. ^ Walt, Stephen M. (May 19, 2019). "The US is a lot more corrupt than Americans realize, and the problem goes much deeper than Trump". Business Insider. Retrieved May 31, 2021.
  14. ^ Michel, Casey (February 3, 2020). "How the US became the center of global kleptocracy". Vox. Retrieved May 31, 2021.
  15. ^ Cenziper, Debbie; Fitzgibbon, Will; Georges, Salwan (October 4, 2021). "FOREIGN MONEY SECRETLY FLOODS U.S. TAX HAVENS. SOME OF IT IS TAINTED". Washington Post.
  16. ^ Scannell, Kara; Houlder, Vanessa (May 8, 2016). "US tax havens: The new Switzerland". Retrieved May 31, 2021.
  17. ^ Brown, Taylor Kate (April 8, 2015). "The cases where US police have faced killing charges". Archived from the original on October 31, 2019. Retrieved October 23, 2019.

Further reading