From now until Election Day, The Brian Lehrer Show is hosting a series called “30 Issues in 30 Days.” The idea is to dive deep on one issue a day to give voters a sense of what candidates are saying about the policies that affect their lives. This week the series is looking at how Democrats would try to change policy if they won Congress. Today’s issue: Ethics Reform.
By and large, the Democrats' campaign strategy leading up to the midterms has been about focusing on kitchen table issues, namely health care, and ignoring the GOP pachyderm stomping around the room. “You cannot just run against Donald Trump,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a February speech in Kentucky, a warning and a direct rebuke of Hillary Clinton, who did not ignore the elephant but threw salty peanuts at it in the form of name-calling—a tactic that led to predictable (but largely unpredicted) results. The lesson: stay away from Trump’s personal flaws, stay on policy.
But what about when Trump, just being Trump, is the policy? Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, refusal to divest from his businesses, and brazen nepotism has shattered ethics norms that most previous presidents dutifully followed. With those realities, the Democrats have allowed themselves to get a little personal with their formal ethics reform proposal, which takes aim at the president, and which they plan to introduce if they take Congress.
How exactly has Trump changed ethics norms?
Forty years ago this very week, in response to the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which created the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and a new mechanism for regulating ethics in the executive branch. According to Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics (he resigned in 2017 out of protest against Trump), "The program worked pretty well for the better part of forty years," and enjoyed bipartisan support. "OGE always had a soft power—it had the White House backing it and it had the threat of going public."
The threat of public disclosure was often enough to keep presidents in line, and follow the office's directives. But with the advent of Trump, that model changed. "The Trump administration pretty much declared war on [OGE], and going public produced no effect because the president's supporters were going to support him no matter what he did."
And that change has had real consequences. According to Shaub, “People are underestimating the extent to which conflicts of interest may be fueling policy decisions. They don’t realize how dangerous that really is.” The very latest example: the president’s reaction to the killing of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi “We have a prime example of the president going soft on a murderous regime that tortured and killed a Virginia resident who worked for one of the nation's top newspapers. We have to wonder whether that approach was influenced by a conflict of interest,” because “The Saudi Government is spending a great deal of money on Trump’s hotels.”
Why does this matter in November?
If Democrats take the House, ethics reform is top of mind for many candidates, even more than health care. Think of Trump’s conflicts of interest as a pre-existing condition. “If the public gives Democrats control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, our first order of business will be to address the serious ethical lapses in our political system and pass a comprehensive suite of anti-corruption reforms that make elected officials behave in Washington,” said Congressman John Sarbanes, who chairs the Democracy Reform Task Force, to WNYC.
Among those policies would be legally requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns, and expanding the power of the Office of Government Ethics. The legislation would also tighten lobbying laws, bribery laws, and mandate that former lobbyists can’t become Cabinet officials in agencies that have purview over industries that previously employed them.
Walter Shaub, who is now the Senior Advisor at the watchdog group CREW, has his own proposals for ethics reform which go further. But whatever the reforms may be, he warns they will only work if Congress starts taking its job seriously. “Congress has wholly abdicated its responsibility to conduct oversight over the executive branch, and has gone to the lengths of covering for him by attacking investigators. You can have laws on the books but they're nothing but words on the page if you don't have the political will to enforce them.”
For more on Ethics Reform, listen to Brian Lehrer's segment right here: