A good-government group, Issue One, announced on Wednesday that “19 bipartisan lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives launched the Congressional Reformers Caucus, the first organization of its kind on Capitol Hill to focus exclusively on discussing political reform ideas and legislation. Co-chaired by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), the Caucus aims to address ethics and accountability issues in Congress, as well as the roots of dysfunction in the current political system.” Well, it has no shortage of material.
The group’s agenda includes promoting transparency and disclosure; increasing participation in elections; reducing pay-to-play; strengthening enforcement of existing laws; and improving government integrity and accountability. Let me offer some suggestions for each, a challenge if you will, to see whether this group is ready to do more than issue press releases.
On transparency and disclosure, we need legislation mandating release of 10 years of the president’s and vice president’s tax returns; a hearing on the president’s receipt of foreign emoluments; and improved ethics disclosures so that every senior executive branch member must identify foreign sources of money, including loans. A complete White House visitors’ log must be maintained and released at regular intervals. Congress needs to shape up as well. A prohibition on middle-of-the-night drafting sessions where lobbyists hand-write in the margins of bills goodies for their clients must be enforced. (No votes on major legislation should be undertaken without an appropriate score from the Congressional Budget Office and/or Joint Committee on Taxation.) If, for example, this group really wants to break the current system, they should refuse to pass the current tax bill, insist on full and open hearings and a period of deliberative debate. Finally, all settlements for discrimination and harassment paid in whole or in part by taxpayer money should be disclosed.
As for participation in elections, Congress should defund and send packing the phony voting integrity commission, a thinly disguised attempt to prove nonexistent voter fraud and then throw up barriers to voting. Congress can promote automatic voter registration (which exists in eight states and the District of Columbia) and impartial redistricting panels to redraw districts in order to promote competitive elections. In addition, entities such as the Commission on Presidential Debates, which perpetuate the duopoly of the two major parties and keep out legitimate third parties and independents, must be eliminated or reformed. (Litigation is ongoing to challenge the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Federal Election Commission for creating rules that make this effectively impossible, according to Hoover Institution senior fellow Larry Diamond.)
With regard to pay-to-play, the president and all White House employees (including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner) must entirely divest of any active businesses. They must liquidate and put the proceeds in a legitimate blind trust. A president under no circumstances should be allowed to own facilities that are rented by government agencies or to which business is funneled by virtue of the president’s travel schedule.
As for strengthening existing laws, the Office of Government Ethics should be expanded, properly funded and given authority to police and enforce ethics agreements signed by executive branch employees. Enforcement should not depend on the ethics officers at the various departments and agencies, which ultimately report to the same executive branch officials whom they are supposed to be monitoring.
Finally, with regard to integrity and accountability, ethics rules applicable to executive branch employees should be extended to the president and vice president, including anti-nepotism rules. As for lawmakers, they must not be allowed, as Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) did, to trade in stocks related to any oversight committee on which they sit. And finally, no executive branch employee should be permitted to travel by charter airplane when commercial transportation is available.
There is plenty of work to be done. We hope the 19 lawmakers are serious about doing it — and about challenging members of their own parties.