Policy

House Democrats Focus on Ethics, Political Money

Effort is aimed at highlighting president’s ethics woes

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi House Minority says Democrats were developing a series of legislative proposals that would include updates to the nation’s ethics and elections systems. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid the collapse of a signature piece of Republican health care legislation and continued revelations about the Trump team’s ties to Russia, House Democrats have turned their spotlight on proposals to revamp ethics, campaign finance and voting rights laws.

“We’re fighting back against the lack of accountability that we see in the Trump administration and from special interests,” said Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, who chairs his party’s Democracy Reform Task Force.

“The president said he was going to do it, he said he was going to drain the swamp, that he was going to bring accountability to Washington — he’s done absolutely the opposite,” Sarbanes said. “He suffers and his administration appears to suffer from ethical blindness when it comes to recognizing conflicts of interest rules and basic ethical standards.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sarbanes told reporters during a Tuesday news conference that their party was developing a series of legislative proposals they dubbed the “By the People Project” that would include updates to the nation’s ethics and elections systems.

Some of the measures, such as one to encourage small-dollar campaign donations and another to require additional public disclosures of political spending, have already been introduced.

Those bills are unlikely to move in the GOP-controlled Congress but will provide messaging for Democrats over the August recess and on the campaign trail into next year. Lawmakers are crafting other parts of the agenda, such as the overhaul of ethics laws. Sarbanes said they will work with colleagues on the committees of jurisdiction.

“This has got to be an important part of the Democratic message as we move forward,” he said.

The proposals are the latest in congressional Democrats’ months-long resistance effort aimed at putting a focus on President Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest and ethical woes.

Their goal is two-fold: weaken the White House’s agenda by pointing to the president’s persistent controversies over his business ties and the Russia probe and to try to link Republicans in Congress to those matters.

Members of the minority party have already used their limited procedural tools, such as resolutions of inquiry, to attempt to force the Trump administration to release documents related to the Russia probe as well as the president’s personal tax returns. Republicans have voted down those measures.

Democrats on the Hill have also offered unsuccessful amendments to the annual appropriations bills, and they have penned numerous letters to ethics officials asking for clarifications of the rules.

Outside government watchdogs have also buoyed the effort. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, or CREW, brought a lawsuit in the first days of the Trump administration, alleging that the president was in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause by maintaining ownership of his hotels where foreign dignitaries sometimes stay.

CREW this week announced that it would make public the guest lists of Trump’s private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, after a judge ruled that the administration must provide the list to the group.

House Democrats also blasted the administration’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington called it “a sham commission” intended to make it harder for Americans to vote. She noted a letter sent Tuesday from Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and other Democrats calling on Vice President Mike Pence to ask for the resignation of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who serves as vice chairman of the commission, and to rescind Kobach’s request for voter information.

Though Democrats say they believe the commission aims to suppress votes especially in minority districts, supporters of the election commission, including the conservative-leaning Public Interest Legal Foundation, argue that the effort would help rid election systems of fraud and voting irregularities.

Meanwhile, a collection of campaign finance and liberal groups, including Common Cause and Every Voice, held a demonstration on Tuesday outside the Justice Department calling for an investigation of possible election law violations.

Common Cause last week filed complaints with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission alleging that the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. “illegally solicited a political contribution from a foreign national” by meeting with a Russian operative reportedly to obtain information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

“Our nation is under attack from Russia and our leaders are making excuses and defending the attacker,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “It’s time for the people to hold these politicians accountable.”

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