For the People Act — Combating Corruption in Government

13 mins read
ironclad ethics rules

This is the final article in a five-part series educating the public about the benefits of passing the For the People Act.

Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It’s self-defense. It’s patriotism.”

President Joe Biden

When government officials put their own interests and financial gain above those of the citizens they are supposed to serve, the country suffers. We are well past that point. The For the People Act (FTPA) sets rigorous ethical standards for every branch of government for the good of Americans and our democracy. 

There was a time when we assumed that most presidents had the best interests of our country at heart and didn’t perceive the presidency as a profit-making venture. Jimmy Carter put his assets into a blind trust and discovered upon leaving office that his businesses were almost bankrupt. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also put their assets into a blind trust. Sadly, recent history has taught us that not all presidents put our country before their own personal interests. That’s why the FTPA has a section of ethics rules specifically for the executive branch.

One new rule will mandate that the president and vice president divest from any personal financial holdings that could pose a conflict of interest with their official duties. As noted above, most modern presidents already divested or put their personal holdings in a blind trust, but that was purely a voluntary move by ethical officials. These actions will now be required. 

The FTPA will also restrict federal funds from being spent at businesses owned or controlled by the president, vice president, cabinet members or any of their families. This change alone can restore so much confidence and sunshine to Washington, D.C. According to The Washington Post, room charges alone for the Secret Service agents who had to stay at Trump properties when former President Trump traveled added up to at least $471,000 — but the total was probably much more because the reports were incomplete.

In another move toward openness, sitting presidents, vice presidents and major party candidates will be required to disclose their tax returns. In keeping with the pattern we’ve seen, this is an ethical step that most previous officials in those positions took without being forced to do so, but recent history has shown the need to make this action mandatory. The president, vice president, and immediate family members will also have to provide additional financial disclosures beyond those required for other federal officials. Once again, this act prioritizes transparency. And, to make sure that someone is reviewing the president’s decisions and ensuring ethics rules are followed, an important provision will limit the president’s authority to remove the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) before their term expires. Call it the Walt Shaub rule (even though Shaub, who served as director of the OGE under Trump for more than a year, resigned of his own free will).

But the FTPA does not reserve a clear ethical code only for the president and vice president. It targets the Cabinet and Congress with regulations that aim to shine a light on the sometimes too-cozy relationship between political appointees and elected officials. One new rule will require that cabinet members and other senior appointees in the White House administration disclose their own political donations and fundraising. Betsy DeVos, then the nominee for education secretary, was a major Republican donor to many of the same congressional members who had the power to say yes or no to her nomination. The disclosure rule also applies to “dark money” groups. (For a deeper dive into how the FTPA will get dark money out of politics, read our article from earlier this week.)

Further, the long arm of the FTPA will reach into the halls of government. Members of Congress will not be able to use taxpayer money to settle claims and lawsuits against them. Here’s what the Brennan Center for Justice had to say: “Between 1997 and 2017, the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights … used more than $17 million of taxpayer funds to settle harassment claims raised by federal employees against members of Congress. In response, in 2018, Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, which requires members of Congress to reimburse the Treasury for any awards or settlements paid in connection to claims of workplace harassment. This … would expand the reimbursement requirement to include all employment discrimination claims.” 

Travel is another area in which corruption can run rampant. The FTPA will restrict Cabinet members and other senior appointees from jetting around in private aircraft. Whenever they fly for official business, the tab is picked up by the U.S. government — that is, the taxpayers. Tom Price, a former Health and Human Services secretary took more than $300,000 in private flights, which eventually led to his resignation. The FTPA also will require the secretary of defense to submit reports to the House Armed Services Committee every 90 days that detail all costs of presidential and senior executive travel. Giving Congress the power to enforce this oversight function will lead to more thoughtful and ethical spending.

Another important aspect of ethics is limiting and disclosing political donations and campaign contributions. Is the purpose of the donation to support a cause, issue, or candidate or is it to gain influence with powerful politicians or the most powerful person in the country, the president? And what about when foreign countries get involved?

The last few years have seen a rise in attempts by foreign countries to influence American elections. The Mueller report documented some of these efforts, and the FTPA sets specific reporting requirements on any contacts by foreign governments. Political committees must notify the FBI and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) whenever they interact with any representative of a foreign government, party or other entity that offers to contribute or collaborate to influence a U.S. election. This rule is subject to certain exemptions, including for official government business. Political committees also will be required to establish internal reports and procedures to ensure accurate and timely reporting, and the FBI will submit an annual report to Congress detailing reportable foreign contacts communicated to agents by political committees.

Foreign nationals will not be permitted to participate in any decision-making by political committees, persons, corporations, unions or other political organizations related to campaign spending. Any organization that makes a federal campaign contribution will have to certify that foreign nationals had no involvement in the decision. The FTPA also makes clear that these restrictions apply to money contributed to support ballot measures and propositions.

Campaign finance transparency is another important issue in the FTPA. A section called the DISCLOSE Act mandates extensive new reporting requirements, which say that any organization spending more than $10,000 per election cycle must report all donors who gave at least $10,000 during that cycle (although commonsense exceptions exist, including if disclosure would subject the donor to threats). Campaigns also must report all  payments above $1,000 related to the campaign. 

A particular focus of the FTPA is cracking down on donations to inaugural committees. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy wrote in 2019, “Presidential inaugurations are at the very edge of campaign finance regulations. That means most of the typical campaign finance restrictions during an election, including on the size and sources of donations, simply don’t apply to an inaugural committee.” Under the FTPA, these donations would be reined in at a $50,000 limit to Inaugural Committees, thus giving Americans peace of mind that people are nominated to positions like ambassadorships because they are the best for the job, not because they gave the most money. 

Further, all donations over $1,000 to inaugural committees must be disclosed within 24 hours. The new rules also will prohibit the use of money donated to an inaugural committee for non-inaugural purposes. And the FTPA requires that all political donations be disclosed before Election Day. (For more information on how the FTPA will get big money out of politics, read our article from earlier this week.)

Money and corruption can work their way into any corner of our government. To that end, the FTPA calls for more ethical regulations regarding people in power — including Supreme Court justices. Currently, the nine judges on SCOTUS are the only judges in the country who are not bound by a code of conduct. But it is quite likely they need one. Over the past 20 years, Supreme Court justices have participated in partisan conferences and fundraisers, accepted expensive gifts and travel, spoken in public forums from a partisan point of view, provided anonymous leaks to media about private conferences and failed to recuse themselves in cases involving financial and personal conflicts of interests. None of these actions would be possible for federal judges — their code of ethics forbids it. In Salon, Steven Lubet points out the specific purpose of a SCOTUS code of ethics; Since Supreme Court justices cannot be sanctioned or removed from the bench (other than through impeachment), “the For the People Act requires only the promulgation of ethics standards so that the justices can be held accountable for their conduct in the court of public opinion.” As recent events in our country make abundantly and violently clear, the court of public opinion is powerful.

“Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain.”

Principle 1 of the 14 Principles of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch

All this week DemCast is focusing on educating the public about the benefits of the For the People Act and the urgent need to pass the bill in order to protect our democracy. To catch up on all articles, just click the links:

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