Politics

House Democrats Want to Use Minibus to Target Trump Ethics

Rules Committee likely to nix attempts to force issue

Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes says Democrats will use the tools at their disposal to force action on President Donald Trump's ethics. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democrats this week are trying to hitch a slate of amendments to the appropriations minibus, all targeting the business, family members and scandals of President Donald Trump.

The amendments, offered in the Rules Committee, are part of the minority party’s larger effort to tie their Republican colleagues to Trump’s possible conflicts of interest stemming from his business holdings and the government’s probe of alleged collusion by Trump campaign officials with Russia to influence the 2016 elections.

Republicans on the Rules Committee are set to nix some of the proposals Wednesday when they complete a rule for the defense portion of the four-bill spending package.

It’s a scenario that has played out on similar Democratic tactics aimed at the president and his ethics, such as resolutions of inquiry. GOP lawmakers have called the Democrats’ strategy blatantly political and have said the measures are often duplicative of ongoing investigations and existing ethics laws.

But Democrats want to keep the pressure up into the 2018 elections.

“Democrats need to use whatever tools are at their disposal,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., his party’s point man on ethics. Using the appropriations process, he added, is “fair game.”

Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. offered an amendment that would prohibit taxpayer funds from being used to reimburse federal employees for travel or other business expenses at Trump properties such as Mar-a-Lago, the president’s club in Florida.

“Appropriations bills have to come to the floor, so it’s much easier to actually have a hearing on it if it’s an amendment to appropriations,” the Virginia Democrat told CQ Roll Call. A standalone measure, by contrast, “can disappear from the face of the Earth” if it doesn’t have bipartisan support, he added.

Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, offered a similar amendment that would bar the Defense Department from spending taxpayer funds at properties owned by the president or his family.

“I don’t mind if the president wants to go golfing at Mar-a-Lago,” Lieu said. “The problem is if he brings a whole bunch of staff, Department of Defense personnel — it’s inappropriate for the taxpayers to pay for it.”

Another amendment from Rep. Brendan F. Boyle , D-Pa., would block the use of taxpayer money to pay any of the legal bills for Trump and his family members in the Russia investigation.Trump is allowed to use campaign funds for legal fees and has already tapped the committees set up for his re-election to do so.

Other proposals would target Trump’s son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner’s security clearance. Kushner, who has revised the disclosures required for the security clearance, spoke to Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Monday and denied any collusion with Russian officials.

Other tactics

Democrats are looking for a way to drive a wedge among Republicans over Trump, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. The appropriations package is an attractive vehicle for Democratic messaging bills, she noted.

Congressional Republicans, of course, used the appropriations process when their party did not control the White House to target the Obama administration on Cuba policy, immigration matters and others.

“Appropriations becomes a nice target because, in some form, eventually they are must-pass,” Binder said.

Some veteran policy wonks say using the appropriations process for the political measures, though, makes an already difficult slog of funding the government even riskier.

“Personally, I don’t think that it is a wise use of the energy and resources of legislative counsel or the appropriations process,” said longtime lobbyist Mike Fulton, director of public affairs and advocacy for the Asher Agency. “We live and die with the appropriations process, and I think that anything that inhibits that process is detrimental to government working smoothly.”

The Democratic strategy on Trump goes beyond the must-pass spending bills.

This week, the minority party, using a tactic called a resolution of inquiry, is forcing four committee votes over Trump ethics and business issues. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary and Homeland Security panels have scheduled votes on resolutions in their jurisdiction.

The Judiciary resolution would request documents from the Department of Justice related to former FBI Director James B. Comey’s dismissal and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal in the Russia probe.

Homeland Security’s vote is on a resolution of inquiry from New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and other Democrats, that would direct the Department of Homeland Security to provide the committee with information and documents detailing payments that the department has made that relate to The Trump Organization and travel by Trump’s family members for company business.

The House Financial Services Committee rejected a resolution on Tuesday that would have compelled the Treasury Department to provide any documents related to the president’s possible business investments in Russia.

The committee’s chairman, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, called the resolution “blatantly political” and added: “On this committee, there will be some who wish to focus on Russia and impeachment, but under my chairmanship, this committee will continue to be focused on America and a healthier economy.”

Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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