Accountability from Within: Politically Insulated Bureaucrats and Incumbent Rent-Seeking

A growing literature shows that elections are a poor mechanism to hold corrupt incumbents accountable. In that context, can institutional checks and balances compensate for the shortcomings of elections in fighting corruption? This paper examines a possible source of institutional accountability: the presence of politically insulated civil servants with oversight authority over the actions of incumbents. I examine the effect of politically insulated bureaucrats on a type of incumbent rent-seeking: the use of political budget cycles. To do so, I implement a regression discontinuity that takes advantage of the population-based rule that assigns civil servants to Spanish municipalities. I report consistent evidence that politically insulated civil servants do not discourage incumbents from engaging in rent seeking. This finding offers a pessimistic view of the capacity of institutional accountability mechanisms to discipline politicians.