During the last two decades, literature on corruption has categorised various types of corruption, discussed the conditions under which corruption is believed to flourish and quantified the costs of corruption. Efforts have also been made to identify practical steps which can be taken to curb and possibly eliminate corruption. Within this latter stream of inquiry considerable attention has been paid to the role that legislature can play in preventing, combating and eventually reducing corruption.
Broadly speaking, scholars have identified three sets of actions that parliaments and legislatures can take to reduce corruption (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2014). Firstly, as legislative bodies, parliaments can introduce and enact legislation to regulate campaign and party financing as well as to tackle corruption and money laundering.
Secondly, legislatures can also establish codes of legislative conduct to provide parliamentarians with guidance as to how they are expected to conduct themselves, to explain what appropriate legislative behaviour is and to establish sanctions for possible breaches of the codes themselves (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2014). Moreover, legislatures are able to set up ethics committees to clarify ethical dilemmas that members may encounter in the course of their legislative activities and to administer the implementation of the code.
Last but not least, legislatures can contribute to curbing corruption by effectively performing their oversight function. By holding the government to account for its actions, its expenditures and its policy implementation, parliaments are (or have the potential to be) the cornerstone of any system of accountability.
A growing body of work has consistently argued that the relative effectiveness with which legislatures perform their oversight function makes a significant contribution to the quality of democracy, the legitimacy and the stability of political regimes, and the fight against corruption (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2012). A recent GOPAC study confirmed this, demonstrating empirically that countries in which legislatures effectively hold the executive to account effectively display higher democratic quality, greater political stability and less corruption (GOPAC, 2013).
The dividends of effective parliamentary oversight have led some scholars and practitioners to investigate the determinants of this success. The most recent contributions to this line of inquiry have shown institutional design and agency plays a key role in determining the effectiveness with which legislators perform their oversight function (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2013). Regarding institutional factors, the number and type of oversight tools, the presence of independent oversight bodies and the availability of free and reliable information have all been shown to influence the capacity of a legislature to successfully perform its oversight function (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2013). But while these three factors can provide an accurate indication of the oversight potential of a legislature, oversight effectiveness cannot simply be reduced to monitoring capacity.
Indeed, the effectiveness of an oversight regime reflects not only the oversight capacity of a legislature but also the political will to make an effective use of such capacity (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2012). In our work we have argued that the single most important determinant of oversight effectiveness is the relative level of popular demands for good governance and transparency (Pelizzo and Stapenhurst, 2013). Such public demands, often articulated by civil society organizations such as Verona Pulita, make it clear to legislators that they can win popular political support by fulfilling their duties as overseers.
Public expression of a desire for good governance therefore has the potential to compel legislators to work productively as part of a “checks and balances” system. Not all legislators can be expected to be effective overseers merely for the sake of integrity, but all of them can be relied upon expected to execute their duties effectively when these neatly overlap with their own political self-interest.
Written by Dr. Riccardo Pelizzo, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at REPOA, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Senior Consultant on legislative affairs for the World Bank Institute.
GOPAC (2013) Improving Democratic Accountability Globally: A Handbook for legislators on congressional oversight in presidential systems, Ottawa, GOPAC.
Mauro, P. (1997) “The Effects of Corruption on Growth, Investment and Government Expenditure: A Cross Country Analysis”, in: K.A. Ellio (ed.) Corruption and the Global Economy, pp. 83–107 Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.
Pelizzo, R. (2012) Le Strategie Della Crescita. Saggi di Politica Economica, Napoli, Guida.
Pelizzo, R. and R. Stapenhurst (2012) Parliamentary Oversight Tools, London, Routledge.
Pelizzo, R. and R. Stapenhurst (2013) Government Accountability and Legislative Oversight, New York, Routledge.
Pelizzo, R. and R. Stapenhurst (2014) Corruption and Legislatures, New York, Routledge.
 Verona Pulita is a civil society organization that in recent months has uncovered and denounced several scandals and instances of corruption in the city of Verona, Italy.