The Republican-led Congress wants to brush off these ethics requirements as a mere inconvenience. Failing that, they are willing to intimidate the public servants charged with implementing the rules. If they succeed, the Republican-led Congress will erode public confidence in our democracy and set the new administration up for scandal and failure.
It is illegal for any Cabinet member to participate in a government matter that will “affect his own financial interest” or those of his or her family members, or any organization with whom he or she is affiliated. The reason this law exists is obvious: Without it, federal officials might be tempted to pursue their own interests rather than those of the American people, throwing into question the motives behind every move they make.
That is why Republicans and Democrats have embraced these restrictions. The procedures and precedents to enforce them have been followed by generations of American presidents and their Cabinets. Background checks ensure that nominees are free of criminal problems or debilitating foreign connections. Tax returns and financial disclosures reveal potentially damaging information that may undermine fitness to serve. Ethics agreements provide each Cabinet member a detailed, binding and personalized plan for disentangling from any personal and financial conflicts that could create even the appearance of self-dealing while in office.
But Republicans have ignored these safeguards. Betsy DeVos, the billionaire nominated to run the Department of Education despite having virtually no education experience, has not completed her financial disclosures or her ethics agreement. Despite Democrats’ numerous attempts to postpone proceedings until these essential documents are provided, Republicans went ahead with DeVos’s hearing Tuesday. Without the necessary information, we were unable to fully question the nominee about her many potential conflicts of interest. We were unable to say with confidence that DeVos will put the American people first. And after depriving the American public of even the most basic information on the nominee, Republicans further undercut a thoughtful examination by cutting the hearing short despite several senators pressing to ask additional questions.
When President Obama’s nominees were presented to Congress, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanded that nominees meet these safeguards – and they did, no matter who they were or what they had done in the past.
These requirements are even more important today, when Trump’s nominees have complex financial histories, deep business ties and billions of dollars invested in the industries they will soon oversee. Complete compliance with the law might require weeks of hard work to identify and root out the many financial conflicts of a Cabinet whose members are collectively worth more than a third of all Americans combined. Difficult, yes — but that is no excuse to ignore them.
The problem starts at the top. The president-elect has thrown out decades of precedent by refusing to release his tax returns or disentangle himself from his business connections. Now his Republican allies in Congress seem content to permit Cabinet nominees to do the same.
Republicans have threatened to jam through confirmation hearings despite incomplete FBI background checks, missing financial disclosures, refusals to produce tax returns and incomplete ethics agreements. When the head of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics said his office was under “pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest” to meet these rushed timelines and criticized the adequacy of the president-elect’s plans for his own businesses, House Republicans finally decided to launch an inquiry into – wait for it – the Office of Government Ethics. Evidently Republicans don’t like an “aggressive stance” on ethics issues.
Intimidating and bullying ethics officials into ignoring their legal responsibilities corrodes our democracy. It also leads to shoddy ethics agreements, which could leave Cabinet members with unresolved conflicts of interest that might affect their official actions.
Casting aside the nominees’ ethical obligations puts everyone at risk – even the nominees. Ethics agreements provide a clear line for executive branch employees between what is illegal and what is not. Conflicts can arise for even the most innocent of government officials. Respecting the process protects nominees from investigation and prosecution.
This problem is not theoretical. Lester Crawford, Food and Drug Administration administrator under President George W. Bush, resigned after only two months on the job and pleaded guilty to conflict of interest charges after failing to report ownership of stock in food and drug companies regulated by the agency. President Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, was plagued by conflicts of interest, resigning in 1988 after years of investigations into one scandal after another that distracted the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Over the years, many government officials have been caught up in such scandals. These rules exist to prevent such incidents.
Congress must take these ethical requirements seriously. No Cabinet member should receive a hearing before his or her background checks, financial disclosures and ethics agreements are finished and senators have had time to review them. Nominees should be forthcoming and transparent. If those hearings have occurred, nominees who have not completed their ethics reviews should return for another round of questions after that information is made available. Senators should be thorough in their assessment and questioning of nominees. And financial conflicts with official duties must be eliminated.
I recently introduced legislation that would protect the president and vice president from financial conflicts and constitutional violations by requiring them to fully disclose and divest themselves of all personal financial interests. No such law is necessary for Cabinet officials because the laws on the books are perfectly clear.
If Congress ignores these basic ethics requirements today, the American people and the nominees themselves likely will pay the price tomorrow.