Senate Republicans Decide That Ethics Can Wait

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/trump-nominees-ethics-cabinet-democrat-senate/512555/

Four of Donald Trump’s top Cabinet picks are set to receive confirmation hearings before they have obtained certified agreements about their conflicts of interest. A government watchdog says that hasn’t happened in decades.

As many as four top Cabinet nominees of President-elect Donald Trump will receive confirmation hearings this week without having completed financial disclosure reports and ethics agreements, breaking a longstanding tradition in the Senate.

Citing the importance of the new president having his national-security team in place immediately, Republican leaders are intent on seating as many of Trump’s Cabinet picks as possible by the time he takes office on January 20. In pushing ahead, however, they are brushing aside a warning from the director of the independent Office of Government Ethics that their aggressive hearing schedule is “cause for alarm.”

Senate committees have scheduled confirmation hearings for eight nominees over a three-day period beginning Tuesday. As of midday Monday, four of them did not have certified ethics agreements detailing their plans to resolve potential conflicts of interests once they take office: Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education secretary; retired General John Kelly, the nominee for homeland security secretary; Ben Carson, the nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Wilbur Ross, the nominee for commerce secretary.

The nominees are behind schedule because the Trump transition did not follow the usual practice of pre-clearing the president-elect’s choices for potential ethical conflicts or security issues before sending their names to the Senate. As a result, the relatively small federal agency charged with reviewing their financial portfolios has been overwhelmed—in part because so many of the nominees are wealthy executives with vast holdings they may need to divest or unwind.

“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not
completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” wrote Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, in a letter to senators late last week. “This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews.”He added: “I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.”

Democrats have used Shaub’s letter as ammunition to demand that Republicans slow down. But in an appearance Sunday morning on Face the Nation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed their protests as “little procedural complaints” stemming from the party’s frustration at losing the election. He said that while the hearings would proceed, the nominees would not receive final votes on their confirmation until all of their paperwork had been completed.

After meeting with Trump in New York on Monday morning, McConnell reiterated his desire to see “up to six or seven nominees” confirmed by the inauguration. “Everyone will be properly vetted as they have been in the past,” he told reporters.

As with so many of the early skirmishes of the Trump administration-in-waiting, this fight is about setting a tone as much as substance. Can Democrats force the incoming president to play by the rules after he campaigned as a candidate who would shake up the conventions of Washington? And will Republicans defer to Trump’s wishes or the Senate’s institutional traditions?McConnell is using the Obama transition as a benchmark, noting that the Democratic-led Senate at the time confirmed seven of his nominees immediately upon his inauguration. But Democrats argue that because Trump has stacked his Cabinet with nominees from the private sector who have both a slim public record and a greater potential for conflicts of interest, the details of their ethics agreements are more important. While Democrats can use procedural tactics to slow-walk the actual confirmation votes, the lack of complete financial records will limit their ability to press the nominees during their public hearings.Norm Eisen, who served as the top ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, has also unearthed a letter that McConnell sent eight years ago, when he was minority leader, insisting on the same standards for Obama’s nominees. But as McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, noted on Twitter, McConnell raised those concerns after the Senate had already confirmed most of Obama’s Cabinet. Nevertheless, on Monday afternoon the Democratic leader, Senator Charles Schumer, made a point of sending McConnell’s 2009 letter right back to him with names and dates switched.

Democrats are particularly concerned about DeVos, a conservative activist and philanthropist tapped for education secretary. Of the eight Trump nominees the party is targeting most aggressively on ideological and policy grounds, she is the only one scheduled for a hearing this week who does not have a signed ethics agreement. “Given Ms. DeVos’ very significant financial resources and the high position of public trust to which she will be nominated, it is essential that our committee fully understand in advance of the hearing what are the potential conflicts of interest and the steps she will take in order to comply with federal ethics laws and regulations,” Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wrote in a letter to Shaub seeking an update on the status of DeVos’ ethics forms.Politically, Democrats have little hope of blocking Trump’s nominees without help from Republicans. The 52-member GOP majority can confirm all but one of them on a simple majority vote, thanks to a rule change Democrats made when they were in power in 2013. So far, no Republicans have announced opposition to any Trump nominees, and none have joined Democrats in raising concerns about the swift hearing schedule.
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