(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – As the Trump Administration continues to shatter conflicts of interest standards and ethical norms in government, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced comprehensive legislation to strengthen the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), the independent agency responsible for preventing and resolving conflicts of interest within the Executive Branch. Although OGE is able to identify violations of ethics laws and regulations, it lacks the authority to compel compliance. The Executive Branch Comprehensive Ethics Enforcement Act (H.R. 5902) would empower OGE to enforce federal ethics laws and regulations within a strong system of checks and balances.
The bill has 21 cosponsors in the House, and has earned the support of good government groups such as Public Citizen, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Democracy 21, Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Demand Progress Action and the Sunlight Foundation.
“This legislation would give our nation’s top ethics watchdog real teeth,” Blumenthal said. “The Trump Administration has completely shattered our basic norms when it comes to dealing with conflicts of interest and ethics issues. The fish rots from the head: the President himself continues to hold an ownership stake in the Trump Organization even as he makes decisions that could impact its bottom line. Meanwhile, Cabinet secretaries continue to hold financial stakes in the industries they ‘regulate’ while jetting around the country and lavishly redecorating their offices on the taxpayer’s dime. This legislation will ensure basic accountability for the kind of egregious ethics violations we’ve become accustomed to during the Trump Administration – ensuring that our nation’s leaders are serving the American people, not their own self-interest.”
“These changes will help empower OGE as an ethics watchdog,” Raskin said. “Our proposal ensures that OGE functions as an independent, professional ethics agency with the legal authority and tools to carry out its mandate. It would permit OGE to finally enforce the federal ethics laws and regulations it is tasked with overseeing so it can fulfill its essential watchdog function.”
Political appointees in the Trump Administration – and the President himself – have dramatically altered the norms of compliance with basic ethics rules and regulations while in office. For example, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross retained investments in a company that does millions of dollars of business with a Russian energy company with close ties to Vladimir Putin and a Venezuelan state oil company under U.S. sanctions. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to hold a financial stake in a company that operates a chain of for-profit colleges. Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is fending off multiple accusations that he misused taxpayer funds and maintained improper ties to companies regulated by the EPA.
Under current law, OGE is only able to act in an advisory capacity. The agency is not permitted to require federal employees to divest from their financial holdings, or to order agencies to terminate employees that continue to operate with financial conflicts of interest while in government.
The Executive Branch Comprehensive Ethics Enforcement Act would empower OGE to hold political appointees and federal employees accountable by:
Strengthening the Authority of the Office of Government Ethics. The Executive Branch Comprehensive Ethics Enforcement Act strengthens OGE’s authority by granting the Director the ability to request subpoenas from a federal court in order to gather necessary information and conduct formal investigations. It also authorizes OGE to report its findings directly to Congress – bringing it on par with other agencies like the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Finally, the bill preserves agency ethics officers as the first-line authority to interpret and enforce the ethics laws, but requires those agency ethics officials to report to the OGE about the status of compliance with federal ethics laws.
Clarifying the Scope of Ethics Rules. The legislation clarifies that the scope of OGE’s rules and regulations extend to White House personnel as well as executive branch agencies.
Ensuring Accountability for Ethics Violations. When a federal employee’s efforts to comply with ethics rules or regulations fall short, the bill authorizes OGE to order corrective actions – such as divestiture, blind trusts and recusal – and impose appropriate administrative penalties – such as reprimand, suspension or dismissal.
Protecting the Independence of OGE. This legislation would insulate the Director of OGE from political interference or retaliation by establishing clear requirements for his or her removal from the position. The Executive Branch Comprehensive Ethics Enforcement Act would protect the independence of OGE by ensuring that the Director can only be removed for cause, such as gross negligence or malfeasance in office.
Establishing OGE as the Central Repository for Ethics Records and Training. This legislation establishes OGE as the central repository for ethics records deemed public information by law or by the Director, and makes these records available on-line in a searchable and downloadable format.
Congressman Jamie Raskin represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, which includes Montgomery, Frederick, and Carroll counties. He is the Vice Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, a Senior Democratic Whip, and Freshman Representative to the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee. He also serves on the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee and the Committee on House Administration.