The op-ed below was published in RealClearPolicy here on Wednesday, November 15, 2017.
A 10-Point Plan to Drain the Swamp
by Fred Wertheimer and Norman Eisen
Those who oppose Donald Trump — of whatever party or ideology — celebrated the recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and across the country. But this will not fix the fundamental problems facing our democracy. The bipartisan anti-Trump coalition must come together over affirmative policies that reject Trump’s platform of attack and divide.
That can be challenging when liberal, independent, and conservative critics of the president disagree on substantive policies, such as health care and taxes. However, there is a policy space for those opposed to Trump to join together to take action on at least one thing: truly draining the swamp in Washington.
Of course, candidate Trump made swamp-draining his mantra, but as president he has made the problems worse.
The president says conflict of interest rules don’t apply to him, and exploits the presidency for financial gain from his worldwide business enterprises. Meanwhile, the power of money to buy influence in Washington has greatly increased thanks to destructive Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, such as Citizens United and McCutcheon.
Today, President Trump has historically low approval ratings. Congress has near-record low ratings. Thus, now is an ideal moment to make changes to combat influence-buying and financial self-dealing in Washington and repair our dysfunctional political system. This is a difficult battle, and it will take time. But it can be won. The nation has made similar changes in the past during moments of political crisis; we must make them again.
To that end, we propose the following 10-point plan for a government integrity compact with America.
1. Repeal the omnibus party contribution limits. This provision was snuck into the omnibus FY15 appropriations bill at the last minute. It allows a president or member of Congress to solicit more than $1.5 million from an individual donor over a two-year election cycle and a national party to receive and spend that donation. This is nothing more than a legal loophole for massive contributions that can be used to influence government actions. It must go.
2. Ban joint fundraising committees. These committees also allow wealthy individuals to give huge contributions to the parties, circumventing contribution limits. Through such committees, both Clinton and Trump were able to solicit individual contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars per donor for their parties to use to support their campaigns, far in excess of what a donor could give to a candidate ($2,700 per donor, per election). These joint committees are dangerous vehicles that give large donors undue influence in Washington; they must be ended.
3. Ban individual-candidate Super PACs. These are the most destructive of all Super PACs. They allow donors to eviscerate the $2,700 candidate contribution limit by giving a Super PAC unlimited contributions that both the donors and the candidate they support know will be spent only for that candidate. In the 2016 election, individual-candidate Super PACs raised $835 million from big donors. These Super PACs should be shut down.
It is not enough to reduce the cash flow without clamping down on those who wield the influence it buys: lobbyists. Here are three policies to limit their power.
4. Ban lobbyist bundling of contributions. Lobbyists gain influence in Congress by raising money for officeholders. While a lobbyist can give up to $2,700 per election to a member of Congress, the lobbyist can raise $100,000 or more for the same Member — and get credit from the member for all of it. This evasive “bundling” practice should be minimized by limiting lobbyist “bundled” contributions for a candidate to no more than the $2,700 total that the lobbyist could give to the candidate.
5. Close the lobbying registration loophole. In order for the lobbyist bundling ban to work, a major loophole in the definition of “lobbyist” must be closed so that former members of Congress can no longer avoid having to register as lobbyists.
6. Ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists for five years. Currently, the restrictions on members becoming lobbyists do not create meaningful separation between a member’s service in Congress and the member’s efforts to influence those he or she served with. The current one-year ban on former House members and the two-year ban on former Senators should be extended to a five year lobbying ban for all former members of Congress.
Finally, here are four policies to address the unprecedented Trump conflicts of interest and their Congressional corollaries, as well as the need for effective enforcement of current government integrity laws.
7. Require presidents and vice presidents to divest assets that could result in conflicts of interest and to disclose their income taxes. President Trump is the first president since the passage of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 to refuse to divest his worldwide business enterprises, which are fraught with massive conflicts of interest problems. Presidents and vice presidents should be required to divest all financial holdings that could cause conflicts of interests, in accordance with the blind trust provisions of the Ethics in Government Act.
Trump is also the first president since Nixon to refuse to make his tax returns public. There is no basis for this refusal other than the fact that Trump wants to hide relevant information from the American people. Presidents and vice presidents should be required to publicly disclose their tax returns.
8. Require members of Congress to divest individual stock holdings. Conflicts of interest are not just a problem for the White House and the executive branch. Individual stock holdings by members of Congress can create conflicts, because members frequently take actions on policy matters that can affect the price of stocks they own or about which they have inside information. Members of Congress should be required to divest their holdings of individual stocks, subject to the same favorable tax-treatment provided to executive branch officials.
9. Repair the bribery, gratuities and honest service laws. Supreme Court and lower court decisions have dramatically narrowed the scope of federal bribery, gratuity, and honest services statutes. This has crippled the government’s ability to hold self-dealing officeholders accountable for improper actions. Congress should restore these statutes as effective tools to prevent officeholders from abusing their public office for private gain.
10. Strengthen the agencies responsible for interpreting and enforcing the rules. Without effective enforcement, rules established to protect the integrity of our democracy do not work. The Federal Election Commission is a dysfunctional, failed enforcement agency; it should be replaced. The executive branch’s Office of Government Ethics and the House Congressional Ethics Office both need enhanced authority and strengthened enforcement powers. The Senate should establish its own ethics office.
These reforms would have a direct and enormous impact on the way business is done in Washington. They also make good on Donald Trump’s campaign commitment to drain the swamp, even while the president fails to do so. Such a government integrity compact would help restore the representative system of government envisioned by the Constitution — that’s something Right, Left and Center can all agree on.
Fred Wertheimer is the founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to strengthen our democracy and promotes government integrity, accountability and transparency measures to accomplish its goals. Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2009 to 2011.