Update 293 – Congressional Democrats Leading the Charge Against Corruption
Americans’ innate distrust of government, part of the country’s political DNA, is and has been at Watergate era levels for the past 10-12 years. A series of change elections has reinforced the nation’s political discontent, providing the background for the demand and laying the foundations for reform. Now, three in four Americans regard corruption in politics and government “very important.” Without political and campaign finance reform, economic policy options will be constrained and popular frustration is likely to mount.
Today, Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke at the National Press Club on the culture of corruption in Washington, outlining a sweeping set of legislative proposals in her Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Below we take a look at Sen. Warren’s comprehensive anti-corruption bill and other Democratic efforts on anti-corruption and pro-voter measures, spearheaded by the Democracy Reform Task Force.
The Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act
Sen. Warren’s bill proposes six reforms to fight corruption in Washington and return faith to an American public tired of the Trump administration and a Congress drowning in “the swamp.”
- End the “revolving door” between government officials and industry and rein in conflicts of interest: Sen. Warren’s proposal would apply conflict-of-interest laws to executive branch officials and senior government employees. It would require the President and Vice President to place all conflicted assets, including businesses, into a blind trust and would require all senior government officials and White House staff to divest from privately-held assets that could present conflicts of interest. In addition, the bill implores all executive branch officials to recuse themselves from issues that could potentially benefit themselves or a previous employer from the last four years. It would implement common-sense changes, such as prohibiting government employees from owning stock whose value might change as a result of their official actions. Notably, the bill calls for a ban on individual stock ownership (other than mutual funds) by members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, senior congressional staff, federal judges, White House staff, and other senior agency officials while in office.
- Transform the lobbying profession by enhancing transparency and ending campaign contributions by lobbyists: The bill aims to end the government-to-industry revolving door by proposing lifetime lobbying bans for Presidents, Vice Presidents, members of Congress, federal judges, and cabinet secretaries. All other federal employees would also face lobbying bans—minimum two years, six for corporate lobbyists—after they leave government service until the end of the Administration. The bill would also require income disclosures for former senior government officials and place limits on revolving door hiring practices to curtail the rampant legalized corporate bribery of former and current government officials. It would also create a new “corporate lobbyist” status for special ethics restrictions, designed to expose individuals and agents paid to influence the government. It would expand the scope of influence-peddlers required to register and disclose as lobbyists and would end direct lobbyist contributions to candidates or members of Congress, lobbyist contingency fees, and gifts from lobbyists to executive/legislative branch officials whom they lobby.
- Remove the corporate interest stranglehold on federal agencies: In-line with some of the themes outlined in her bill last week on corporate accountability, Sen. Warren proposes major changes to the way corporations interact with our government. The bill proposes an end to loopholes exploited by corporations to block public interest actions and would require corporations to disclose funding, editorial, or research conflicts of interest. The bill also seeks to de-politicize the rulemaking process and inoculate federal agencies from corporate influence.
- Reform the judicial system so that it works for all Americans: The bill would boost judicial integrity by requiring the Supreme Court to adhere to the same ethics laws as other federal judges, improve transparency of proceedings, and promote diversity on federal courts.
- Create new federal agencies dedicated to enforcing anti-corruption and federal ethics laws: To execute these rules, the bill would create two new anti-corruption and ethics enforcement agencies: the U.S. Office of Public Integrity, and the U.S. Office of Congressional Ethics, to deal with anti-corruption and ethics violations in the executive and legislative branches, respectively.
- Improve government transparency and open records laws: Finally, the bill would increase tax disclosure in the executive and legislative branches by directing the IRS to release specific tax return information, including tax returns from the previous eight years for the President and Vice President, as well as from the previous two years for all Congressional candidates. The bill would shed light on “dark money” in politics by forcing nonprofits to list donations of more than $500 that support the production of any rulemaking comment, congressional testimony, or lobbying material. The bill would also update the Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) to close loopholes that allow federal officials to obfuscate industry influence and would implement measures that would make it easier for the public to access voting records, hearing and markup information, and lobbyist interactions with legislators.
A Better Deal on Political Reform
Signaling coordination between the lower and upper chambers of Congress, House Democrats introduced an anti-corruption, pro-voter package in May this year entitled, “A Better Deal for Our Democracy.” The package focuses on three main reforms:
- repairing the campaign finance system
- bringing in tough ethics laws and ending the revolving door
- ending partisan gerrymandering and increasing voter participation
In an effort to tackle these three areas, Rep. John Sarbanes, chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force, introduced H.Res.975 on June 28. Described by Sarbanes as the broadest political reform measure since Watergate, H.Res. 975 proposes the advancement of a comprehensive set of political reforms to restore trust in, and integrity to, our institutions of democracy. Such reforms will:
- make it easier to vote by ending partisan gerrymandering
- strengthen ethics and accountability laws with regard to special interests and conflicts of interest
- fix the broken campaign finance system by improving disclosure and transparency, and enhancing small donor leverage through public financing
Rep. Sarbanes emphasized that campaign finance reform was the most important piece of the reforms and would encompass a variety of different measures, including: disclosure of “dark money,” strengthening the Federal Election Commission, reducing the damage of the Citizens United decision, and endorsing a new way of financing campaigns through a small donor public financing program and Democracy Voucher schemes.
It seems appropriate that these reforms are coming from the House, given the recent allegations of insider trading against GOP Rep. Chris Collins (a.k.a., “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it [TCJA] done or don’t ever call me again.’”) and the ongoing investigation into another House Republican, Rep. Duncan Hunter for misuse of campaign funds.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) echoed these proposals in a report released in June 2018, entitled “Confronting the Cost of Trump’s Corruption to American Families.” In the report, CAP emphasized the harm to the average person’s pocketbook caused by corruption in Washington.
Implications for the Midterms
The anti-corruption push from Democrats is part of the Party’s For the People campaign focusing on the economy, health care, government reform, and ending corruption. With concrete legislative proposals on the table in the Senate and House, this message is more than just virtue signaling from congressional Democrats.
It is little coincidence that 31 out of 54 candidates in red-to-blue races are eschewing corporate PAC money. The corruption issue is key to getting voters out to support Democratic candidates in November and with legislation ready to go, these issues will be the first area for Democrats to work on once they take back (at least) the lower chamber in November.