Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) envisions a United States government in which presidential and vice presidential candidates must — by law — disclose eight years’ worth of tax returns and place any assets that could present a conflict of interest into a blind trust to be sold off (neither of which President Donald Trump has done).
To Warren, the Trump administration’s nepotism is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Washington. But she doesn’t just want to replace Trump and his administration with better actors; she wants to blow up the existing system and start from scratch.
“Let’s face it: There’s no real question that the Trump era has given us the most nakedly corrupt leadership this nation has seen in our lifetimes,” Warren said to an audience at the National Press Club. “But they are not the cause of the rot — they’re just the biggest, stinkiest example of it. Corruption is a form of public cancer, and Washington’s got it bad.”
Her proposed fix envisions a Washington where the president, vice president, Cabinet members, and congressional lawmakers have a lifetime ban on becoming lobbyists, and other federal workers have restrictions — albeit less severe — on entering lobbying firms. The act would also bar federal judges from owning individual stocks or accepting gifts or payments that could potentially influence the outcome of their rulings.
And in Warren’s plan — laid out in a new bill called the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act — this would all be overseen by a new US Office of Public Integrity, which would go after violators and usher in a new era of ethics law enforcement.
The idea is to “isolate and quarantine the ability of big money to infect the decisions made every day by every branch of our government,” she said in a speech on Tuesday. That means all three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
There’s plenty in this bill that Democrats and Republicans in Washington likely won’t agree with, as it’s clearly designed to overhaul the entire system that members of both parties have benefited from for years. Warren admitted as much on Tuesday.
“Inside Washington, some of these proposals will be very unpopular, even with some of my friends,” she said. “Outside Washington, I expect that most people will see these ideas as no-brainers and be shocked they’re not already the law.”
Warren, one of the top potential 2020 presidential candidates who is staking out an early position for herself as a voice of working people, is laying out exactly how she would drain the swamp — in detail. She’s long railed against corruption in Washington, but she’s clearly setting herself up as the anti-Trump, proposing drastic reforms to prove it.
What’s in the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act
The Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act is a wide-ranging bill that focuses on getting money and lobbying out of politics in all three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. There’s a lot in the proposal, but here are the key parts:
- A lifetime ban on lobbying for presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, federal judges, and Cabinet secretaries.
- Multi-year lobbying bans for federal employees (both Congressional staffers and employees of federal agencies). The span of time would be least two years, and six years for corporate lobbyists.
- Requiring the president and vice president to place assets that could present a conflict of interest — including real estate — in a blind trust and sell them off.
- Requiring the IRS to release eight years’ worth of tax returns for all presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as requiring them to release tax returns during each year in office. The IRS would also have to release two years’ worth of tax returns for members of Congress, and require them to release tax returns for each lawmaker’s year in office.
- Banning members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, White House staff, senior congressional staff, and other officials from owning individual stocks while in office.
- Changing the rulemaking process of federal agencies to severely restrict the ability of corporations or industry to delay or influence rulemaking.
- Creating a new independent US Office of Public Integrity, which would enforce the nation’s ethics laws, and investigate any potential violations. The office would also try to strengthen open records laws, making records more easily accessible to the public and the press.
Warren’s plan has some high standards — but are they impossibly high?
Warren is laying out her ideal world in this bill, but she’s not the first politician to propose some high-minded rules against corruption.
President Barack Obama issued some stringent rules against lobbyists in his administration — but then began making exceptions for several Cabinet nominees. Even with the stricter rules in place, a Politico investigation ultimately found that Obama had hired more than 70 previously registered lobbyists for key administration jobs.
This speaks to a problem Warren and others have identified — there are a lot of well-qualified, smart people in Washington who cycle between Capitol Hill, the White House, and lobbying firms that pay better than government jobs. And when you’re a new president with thousands of positions to fill in your administration, it’s tough not to dip into that pool to staff up.
Perhaps no better example of this dilemma in the Obama administration was when Warren fought the Obama administration on investment banker and financial services professional Antonio Weiss’s nomination to be the undersecretary for domestic finance in the Treasury Department.
Weiss was qualified for the position, but as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explained, that wasn’t Warren’s main objection:
Warren dislikes Weiss less because she thinks he’s done anything uniquely terrible than simply because she thinks he represents continuity with Obama’s longstanding approach of giving Wall Street veterans too much of a role in regulating Wall Street, and she doesn’t like it.
That’s part of a larger issue with putting good-government ideas into practice, as Yglesias continued:
This is a fundamental clash of ideological visions that’s much bigger than disagreements about the role of the Undersecretary or the details of Weiss’s biography. He has the misfortune of being the right person at the right time to serve as a foil for Warren’s larger project. But the fight isn’t about him, and regardless of what happens with this nomination, the battle is going to continue.
As Warren said Tuesday, it’s much more about stopping the current system, rather than stamping out individual bad actors.
“Yes, public servants should be able to use their expertise when they leave government,” she said. “But we’ve gone way past expertise and are headed directly into graft. Padlock the revolving door.”
Warren’s plan sets herself up against the Trump administration
As she campaigns for reelection to the Senate and mulls a possible presidential run in 2020, Warren has a plan to stamp out corruption that’s a lot more comprehensive than Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Drain the Swamp.”
While Trump did sign an executive order that bars administration officials from lobbying their former agency for up to five years after departing, the order contained no rules for the legislative branch, and it weakened Obama-era rules preventing lobbyists from entering the administration.
Drain the Swamp was, in fact, just a slogan, and it’s become a punchline in this administration, with its multiplying corruption scandals involving current and former Cabinet secretaries. Trump swept into office promising to be a reformer of corrupt politics — which he said was practiced by Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Republicans like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio — but his administration has shown to be the exact opposite.
After promising to put his wide-ranging assets from the Trump Organization into a blind trust, Trump has done nothing of the sort. He promised to not get involved in his company’s business decisions, leaving that up to his sons. There are many questions about foreign leaders attempting to curry favor with the president and his family by staying at Trump Organization hotels, and Trump still refuses to release his tax returns.
And he hasn’t lifted a finger to tamp down on the corruption inside his own party or in Congress. This was evident as Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), one of Trump’s staunch defenders in the US House, was arrested by the FBI on charges of insider trading, and later decided not to run for reelection.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan reported, “It’s been a joke among reporters, staffers, and lawmakers in Washington that Collins would one day end up in jail.”
In other words, the swamp is far from drained. Warren, who made a name for herself as a dogged fighter of big banking executives and Wall Street brokers, has a plan for how to do it.
Given that Warren could very likely be among the Democrats jockeying to run against Trump in 2020, she has produced a very detailed plan to clean up the type of corruption that the Trump administration embodies, as well as the larger Washington system that allowed it to flourish for so long.
This bill is part of a bigger picture for Warren
Warren’s bill is part of new legislation she’s introducing to reduce the power and influence of big corporations and banks. Last week, Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require corporations to be more accountable to their workers, not shareholders.
Warren wants to create an Office of United States Corporations inside the Department of Commerce and require any corporation with revenue over $1 billion — only a few thousand companies, but a large share of overall employment and economic activity — to obtain a federal charter of corporate citizenship.
The charter tells company directors to consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders — shareholders, but also customers, employees, and the communities in which the company operates — when making decisions. That could concretely shift the outcome of some shareholder lawsuits but is aimed more broadly at shifting American business culture out of its current shareholders-first framework and back toward something more like the broad ethic of social responsibility that took hold during WWII and continued for several decades.
More concretely, United States Corporations would be required to allow their workers to elect 40 percent of the membership of their board of directors.
Taken together, the Accountable Capitalism Act and the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act are a return to Warren’s bread-and-butter issues, ones that she’s been hammering home since she was a Harvard Law School professor who helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 financial crisis.
Warren was instrumental in helping police the big banks and corporations after 2008, and she has plenty of big ideas to transform the current system. Of course, there’s no way this bill will pass the current Republican Congress — it would probably also have a steep path in a Congress filled with Democrats. This bill is more of a mission statement as Warren explores a 2020 presidential run, and a gauntlet thrown for other 2020 Democrats.