Courtesy Reuters

Improper Payments Abroad: Perspectives and Proposals

Like motherhood and apple pie (zero population growth? food additives?), corporate bribery abroad is not the simple, safe issue it seems at first blush. Sharp division and delay have characterized its consideration by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service, and by several Committees of the U.S. Congress, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Chamber of Commerce. In the United States, a Presidential Cabinet-level Task Force-and in the United Nations, the Committee on Transnational Corporations-have been asked to untangle the problem; but no solution is yet agreed upon.

The practice of exporters and investors offering special inducements to host country officials is at least as old as Marco Polo. But in the United States a post-Watergate climate of pitiless exposure for all suspect practices connected with government has intensified both the investigations of these payments and the oversimplified publicity given to them. Indeed the seeds of the present furor were sown in Watergate. When the Special Prosecutor traced some of the "cover-up" financing to unreported corporate campaign contributions, often transmitted through foreign "slush funds," the SEC initiated a major check on all undisclosed payments to governments and politicians, both domestic and foreign, by the publicly owned companies subject to its jurisdiction.

As a result, U.S. corporate officials have engaged in the most painful rush to public "voluntary" confession since China's Cultural Revolution. Scores of U.S.-based companies have been investigated by one or more arms of the U.S. executive branch, legislative branch, and news media-or by their own directors. Many foreign officials of varying prominence have been forced to resign, deny, or both. The going rate for bribery has reportedly fallen in some countries as fear of disclosure increases, and risen in others as officials discover the full potential of their position. Debates between businessmen asserting that only they live in the "real world" ("Of course, I'm against bribery, but . . . .") and bureaucrats asserting that only

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