Anti-Anti-Ethics

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, December 1, 2016. 

House Republicans who wanted to take Washington back to the Jack Abramoff era learned this week that it’s not the mid-2000s anymore. GOP lawmakers’ closed-door bid to weaken House ethics oversight sparked such a torrent of angry phone calls that Republicans were forced to ditch the plan. Even Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist at the heart of the bribery and corruption scandal that ushered in the current ethics rules, objected.

In a sense, it should come as no surprise that Republicans would set out to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent investigative body put in place in 2008 as part of a post-Abramoff ethics overhaul, just as they launch into unified GOP rule. It’s been feeling a lot like the Abramoff days lately, with special interests poised to pounce on pending tax, health care, and financial services overhauls, and fossil fuels, pharmaceutical, and banking executives lining up to join Donald Trump’s billionaire-heavy cabinet.

House Republicans are ready with an agenda packed with plenty of goodies for special interests hungry for weaker environmental and Wall Street regulations. K Street is ready, too. No doubt many lobbyists have been expecting the new era to resemble the last time Republicans controlled both Capitol Hill and the White House, when then-House GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay—convicted of conspiracy and money laundering in the Abramoff affair, but later acquitted—invited them in to write the bills governing their industries.

But much of what congressional Republicans now seek isn’t what voters bargained for, particularly when it comes to government accountability and ethics. Trump’s attacks on moneyed interests and on Hillary Clinton’s supposed ethics problems helped sweep him into office. Now Trump is under fire for many of the same types of conflicts and Wall Street ties that he so successfully turned against Clinton. Ironically, it was the ethically challenged Trump who helped knock some sense this week into Republicans bent on eviscerating the Office of Congressional Ethics, with a couple of tweets that urged them to put policy matters “of far greater importance” first.

It was just the latest of several signs that Trump may be compelled to back away from his initial disregard for ethics concerns and his stance that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” He has shuttered his charitable foundation, which is under investigation by New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. The president-elect’s son, Eric, has announced plans to do the same with his own foundation. Trump and his children scotched more than one inaugural event following embarrassing reports that big donors would enjoy special access. Trump has also halted several hotel and apartment projects in Azerbaijan, Brazil, and elsewhere.

It’s not even remotely enough to settle mounting concerns over the many conflicts produced by Trump’s far-flung business empire, say watchdogs and ethics experts. Some have written that the president-elect needs to set up a genuine blind trust managed by an independent trustee, and to divest himself and relinquish ownership of the Trump Organization.

Anything less will dog his administration with the appearance of conflicts and of possible violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars public office holders from receiving gifts or payments from foreign interests, the letter-writers argue. Trump’s incoming cabinet officials are also in for a tough vetting process, given that many come from the very industries they will regulate, and may find themselves at odds with government ethics rules.

But the steps Trump has taken, however small, suggest that he may recognize that his brash claims to be exempt from oversight—on the heels of his campaign pledges to “drain the swamp”—are playing poorly. And ethics advocates should take heart that, as this week’s public backlash against House Republicans suggests, voters are on their side. While some news reports attributed the House’s ethics about-face to Trump’s tweets, many lawmakers said the angry outcry from constituents was what really changed their minds.

Voters may be prepared to forgive Trump for stacking his cabinet with business executives, given that they elected him as a private sector outsider. But they will lose patience quickly if stories of corruption, self-enrichment, apparent conflicts, and questionable foreign dealings become a defining narrative of the Trump presidency.

Trump canceled a press conference initially scheduled for December 15 to explain how he would handle his business conflicts of interest as president. A new press conference has been scheduled for January 11. Trump’s critics will be watching closely to see whether he divests from his business empire, whether he retains or throws out the executive branch ethics rules put in place by President Obama, and whether he will continue to make public the White House visitors’ logs. Voters will be watching, too. And as House Republicans discovered this week, those voters have utterly lost patience with lawmakers who try to exempt themselves from the rules that ordinary Americans must follow.

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