A lot of people felt good after watching democracy in action Tuesday. And we all should! This is how things are supposed to work! A party tried to pass a terrible rule in secret. Civil society resisted and journalists reported. Heck, even Jack Abramoff himself, the guy whose scandal spurred creation of the office, spoke out against the move! People called their representatives and at around noon eastern time, House GOP members had unanimously agreed to back away from the proposal.
(For those of you from Missouri/Kansas, here’s a great article about what happened to Missouri Rep. Sam Graves and how many of the Kansas and Missouri representatives voted. It has some good insight about the problems in OCE, but as many also pointed out, should have been done in a more transparent and accountable way.)
This backs up what I’ve been hearing around Washington—that House GOP members are still feeling their way through their new relationship with the president-elect and each other. Though it may be hard to see that from far away, I assure you they do take your phone calls seriously.
In addition, I saw a lot of people making calls remarking that the staff members who answered the phones were nice. Quick thought here: If you’re talking to a staffer in D.C., chances are they are just a fellow Midwesterner who went to Washington hoping to make a difference. Yes, there are some jerks. But the majority are nice folks who are there because they want to serve their country. Congress notoriously pays staff terribly for the cost of living in D.C. so they likely took the job for love of country. (Or it’s a poor intern who is just helping staff members answer an overload of calls!)
Long story short: Be kind to the public servants working the phones.
But back to the topic at hand: There is still more swampland to combat, namely, Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest.
Trump is right insofar as the President of the United States is not subject to the same ethics laws as Congress. However, this does not mean that there can’t be conflicts of interest. And of course, there is a growing list of areas where Trump’s business could come in conflict with the business of the American people.
He was supposed to announce a plan for his business empire back in December, yet, here we are 16 days from inauguration and we have no idea how he is going to build a wall between his personal business and the presidency.
We still don’t know the extent of his conflicts because he hasn’t released his tax returns. Having your kids in charge of your business is not only unacceptable, it is textbook kleptocracy (a government where corrupt rulers use their power to exploit citizens and natural resources for their own self gain). There’s a phrase “you grease the palm of the prince to win favor with the king.” In many countries, this is business as usual and thus they will see that as a normal way to gain influence with Trump even if Americans think this behavior is morally bankrupt.
This should be a nonpartisan issue and I said as much on C-SPAN last month. And I’m not alone in this thinking. In fact, Norm Eisen (ethics attorney for Barack Obama) and Richard Painter (ethics attorney for George W. Bush) have united at an organization called CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington). Together, they have been working to pressure Trump to divest his business and turn it over to a blind trust. They have a lot of really smart thoughts on this subject and I highly recommend following them on Twitter if you are on it.
The troubling part of this for me is the United States really has been a leader in the world on issues of corruption. Our rules, though imperfect, are far ahead of much of the world where bribery and self-dealing are considered business as usual. I do believe we are engaged in what corruption experts call a “virtuous cycle” where the people are able to identify problems and work to influence government to make improvements. We keep working to make the system better. Part of that is thanks to having a robust civil society (citizens linked by common interests and collective activity) and a strong press—as evidenced with yesterday’s developments.
I worry that without divestment, there is potential to slip into the “un-virtuous cycle” where—instead of listening to the people and making improvements to elevate the entire society—the leaders start working in their own interests to the detriment of the society. This primarily happens when influence can pass through unchecked channels like a personal business. This is why we have rules about such a thing for Congress. Typically, presidents don’t want to derail their legislation by the appearance of a scandal, so they follow those same rules out of principle.
Here’s the good news: There is legislation working to address this.
Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are preparing to introduce a bill this month requiring the president and president-elect to divest any conflicts of interest as well as “require presidential appointees to recuse themselves from any specific matters regarding the President’s financial conflicts that may come before their agencies.”
There is also legislation proposed in several states which would require a candidate for president to disclose his or her tax returns before being placed on the ballot. New York’s version, the “Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public” or TRUMP Act (burn), would require these 50 days before the general election or electors could not cast a vote for the candidate in question. You might wonder why that matters to someone in the Midwest. Well, passing this in just one state matters a great deal. If this information is made public in just one state, all of us have access to it by way of reporters who will cover the contents as news. In addition, I imagine if one state passes this legislation, other states will take action as well. A reminder: Trump is the first major candidate in four decades not to release his tax returns to the public.
Other things of interest happening in DC
Alright, that was a lot of serious! To keep your spirits up, I love this story from DCist about a group of restaurants called “All in Service.” If you’re headed to the inauguration or to the march on Saturday, flag this page! Several restaurants in D.C. are donating their profits over the inauguration weekend to nonprofit organizations. The idea is to give back over a busy hospitality weekend, but also to humanize those of us who live here in D.C. and show that we aren’t all “the swamp.”
By the way, this is an interesting read from The Washington Post about how the Women’s March grew from the idea of a grandmother in Hawaii.
Lastly, some dates to add to the calendar. We now know that President Obama will give a farewell address January 10 in Chicago. President-elect Trump announced on Twitter he would hold his first post-election press conference on January 11. Of note: The confirmation hearings for the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general is also set to take place over those two days.