If Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has her way, federal judges will face steep new ethics standards, high-ranking government officials will be banned from ever becoming lobbyists — and any candidate for president will have to release at least eight years of past tax returns.
“Padlock the revolving door between big business and government,” Warren said Tuesday at the National Press Club. “It’s insane that we have to beg the president of the United States to put the American people ahead of his own business interests. Insane.”
Warren’s speech, focusing on the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act that she’s introducing this week, highlighted a set of transparency reforms that would affect everything from how lobbyists have to report meetings with members of Congress to what would be accessible in Freedom of Information Act requests.
The speech also emphasized Warren’s clout at a time when Democratic bills have little chance of passage but media attention is beginning to turn to the 2020 presidential race. Reporters sprawled from chairs to the walls of a midsize room, including next to TV cameras that were capturing a six-part government reform agenda.
Overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United — a talking point on the left for years, advanced by presidential candidates — would be “not nearly enough” for Warren.
Warren took several swings at the Trump campaign and administration. She pointed to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s remarks about the preference campaign donors got when they sought meetings with members of Congress.
And, citing the trial of Trump 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort as a reason to “ban Americans from getting paid to lobby for foreign governments” completely, Warren said: “If foreign governments want to express their views, they can use their diplomats.”
Warren framed the reform package as a response not just to Trump, but also to 45 years of toxic buildup in government. The effort, she said, would require “a new independent sheriff to police corruption,” with plenty of unethical behavior to dig into.
“There’s no real question that the Trump era has given us the most nakedly corrupt leadership this nation has seen in our lifetimes,” Warren said. “But they are not the cause of the rot.”
Even after lobbyists are banned from giving campaign contributions — one of Warren’s proposals — it would be necessary to “prosecute companies that knowingly mislead government agencies and stop the practice of companies paying for sham ‘studies’ designed to derail the rulemaking process.”
To prevent the temptation that pulled Hill staffers into the lobbying sector, Warren suggested their salaries be increased.
To prevent “the spectacle of HHS secretaries and herds of congressmen caught up in insider trading schemes,” Warren suggested they be banned from owning stocks. “They can put their savings in conflict-free investments like mutual funds, or they can pick a different line of work,” she said.
Warren, who acknowledged her changes could not pass unless there was a sustained public pressure campaign and a friendly Congress, swerved away from questions about other Democrats in the news.
Asked about Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to bar reporters from one of her town halls in New York, Warren said there were no media restrictions at her own town halls. Asked to respond to the Democratic National Committee’s loosening of rules on fossil fuel industry PAC donations, she declined to criticize the party and said she wanted ” to see everybody abide by the same rules.”
The senator also batted back an inevitable question about whether she’d run for president in 2020: “I’m running for the Senate in 2018,” she responded. But she also left plenty of clues about what a presidential campaign message might sound like. She asked the audience to recall an old witticism from Ronald Reagan — that the “nine most terrifying words in the English language” were: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” After some light laughter died down, Warren explained why it was wrong.
“Government help is terrifying? Give me a break,” Warren said. “Do you know what’s actually terrifying? Hurricanes like Katrina and Maria are terrifying, which is why victims of natural disasters ask for government help.
“After a lifetime of hard work, growing old and going broke is terrifying, which is why the American people strongly support Social Security,” she said. “Choosing between food and medicine is terrifying, and that’s why the American people rise up and take to the streets when Republicans try to cut back Medicare and Medicaid.”