Tag Archives: Senate

Talk About Conflicts Of Interest….

A recent report issued by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) finds that President Trump has 2,300 conflicts of interest. (For some reason, I’m having trouble linking to the report, but it’s easily Googled.)

We see a number of vague accusations of this administration’s “corruption,” but that all-encompassing description doesn’t tell us what the improprieties are, or why the behaviors are unethical. As a result, we are in danger of normalizing them.

The most common definition of a conflict of interest is a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. CREW puts meat on the bare bones of that definition. The report begins with an explanation of the importance of divestment and the reasons for it.

Prior to President Trump, every modern president divested their business interests before entering office. For decades, this norm of presidential conduct has served as an important signal for both Republican and Democratic administrations to show that, as the nation’s most powerful and prominent public servant, the president would not put personal financial interests before the interests of the country. Divestiture also served as an assurance to the public that the president would not open himself up to undue influence from special interests and foreign governments that might use his businesses as a way to curry favor with him and his administration.

And Trump?

The president has visited his properties 362 times at taxpayer expense during his administration, sometimes visiting multiple properties in a single day. The number of days he’s spent time at a Trump-branded property account for almost a third of the days he’s been president.

One-hundred eleven officials from 65 foreign governments have visited a Trump property.

CREW has recorded 630 visits to Trump properties from at least 250 Trump administration officials. Ivanka Trumpand Jared Kushner are the most frequent executive branch officials to visit Trump properties, other than the president himself. Jared has made 28 known visits, while Ivanka has made 23.

Members of Congress have flocked to President Trump’s properties: 90 members of Congress have made 188 visits to a Trump property.

President Trump has used the presidency to provide free publicity for his properties, which he still profits from as president. As president, Trump has tweeted about or mentioned one of his properties on 159 occasions, and White House officials have mentioned a Trump property 65 times, sometimes in the course of their official duties.

Political groups have spent $5.9 million at Trump properties since President Trump took office. In more than a decade prior to his run for president, Trump’s businesses never received more than $100,000 from political groups in a single year.

Foreign governments and foreign government-linked organizations have hosted 12 events at Trump properties since the president took office. These events have been attended by at least 19 administration officials.

There is much more.

Trump’s behavior has been a truly shocking departure from that of previous presidents, but in all fairness, the expectation that government officials will avoid both conflicts and the appearance of conflicts has been eroded over the years by practices in the Senate.

An article a few weeks ago in The Guardian focused on those practices.

As they set national policy on important issues such as climate change, tech monopolies, medical debt and income inequality, US senators have glaring conflicts of interest, an investigation by news website Sludge and the Guardian can reveal.

An analysis of personal financial disclosure data as of 16 August has found that 51 senators and their spouses have as much as $96m personally invested in corporate stocks in five key sectors: communications/electronics; defense; energy and natural resources; finance, insurance and real estate; and health.

The majority of these stocks come from public companies, and some are private.

Overall, the senators are invested in 338 companies – including tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft, oil and gas giants including ExxonMobil and Antero Midstream, telecom companies including Verizon, and major defense contractors such as Boeing – in the five sectors as categorized by Sludge.

As the article noted, this ownership is not illegal, but such investments raise real questions about lawmakers’ motivations.

We have a lot of work to do.

In 2020, Americans’ first priority must be delivery of an overwhelming, crushing defeat to Trump and the obsequious Republicans who continue to enable him.

Our second must be a wholesale “clean up” of government– reform of electoral systems and governmental structures that facilitate unethical behavior, from state-level gerrymandering and voter suppression, to Senate-level conflicts of interest.

 

A Depressing Analysis

I frequently cite Talking Points Memo. I have found it to be an excellent source of information about what’s going on in Washington–clearly progressive, but scrupulously accurate in its reporting and very thoughtful in its analysis.

I have a lot of respect for the site and for Josh Marshall, the journalist who established it. That’s why I found the following discussion both persuasive and depressing. It was an explanation of the dilemma facing GOP Senators, who–Josh explains– cannot simply rid themselves of Trump. Some of his observations..

There is simply no scenario in which the GOP can easily quit the President or do so without driving a major, divisive and lasting wedge through the center of the party…

Trump’s rule has been so durable because despite his unpopularity he maintains the intense support of a large minority of the electorate. For a mix of demographic and geographical reasons it is a minority that generally over-performs in electoral terms…

But probably 30% and certainly more than 20% are deeply attached to Trump, not only for his few relative points of ideological heterodoxy (trade restrictions, isolationism, etc.) but much more for his embodiment of an authoritarian and illiberal worldview both at home and abroad. These voters will have a very hard time forgiving any Republican leaders who turn on Trump and try to drive him from office. He has simply remade the party so thoroughly around an emotive ecosystem of dominance, obedience and betrayal.

Trump has built his political movement and persona around the politics of grievance and resentment. These are the taproots of the version of American conservatism we now call Trumpism. But Trump embodied and thus sealed and deepened those tendencies in a transformative way. Any partisan would resent politicians who turned on a leader to whom they felt a profound loyalty. But none like pro-Trump diehards.

Josh is convinced that a Senate Republican defection remains unlikely– that there is no substantial number of Republicans who will vote to remove Trump from office. But–as he points out–if facts continue to emerge confirming what we already know about the President’s perfidy, “there’s really no scenario in which most Republican senators won’t face a damaging outcome whichever side of the impeachment question they come down on.”

Don’t expect major defections. But that’s not really the question. The real issue is that Republicans are trapped with someone they can’t cut loose.

I have just one quibble with this otherwise compelling analysis. It begins with the assumption that these Republican Senators want to be re-elected more than they want to do the right thing.

A vote to convict would secure the Senator who casts it a favorable mention in the history books–and it would be a vote for Constitutional accountability and the rule of law.

A vote to acquit will mark the Senator who casts it as a moral coward–but probably an employed moral coward.

Josh has placed his bet on the choice most will make. It pains me to say it, but he is probably right.

 

This May Explain Some Things….

Not that the explanation is reassuring. Quite the contrary.

Vox recently ran an article about the healthcare perks that members of Congress enjoy while they are working hard to deny poor Americans access to basic health insurance. Here’s the WTF section of that article:

Mike Kim, the reserved pharmacist-turned-owner of the pharmacy, said he has gotten used to knowing the most sensitive details about some of the most famous people in Washington.

“At first it’s cool, and then you realize, I’m filling some drugs that are for some pretty serious health problems as well. And these are the people that are running the country,” Kim said, listing treatments for conditions like diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

“It makes you kind of sit back and say, ‘Wow, they’re making the highest laws of the land and they might not even remember what happened yesterday.’”

The article noted that the current Congress is the oldest in our history. It appears that more than half of the senators who plan to run for reelection in 2018 are over 65. (Dianne Feinstein just announced that she plans to run for another 6 year term; she will be 85 at election time.) The average age in the House of Representatives is a (comparatively) youthful 57, and the average age in the Senate is 61.

We all age at different rates, and thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition there are growing numbers of people nearing 100 who remain mentally and physically sharp. It is also true that most of us begin to figure life out as we grow older–there is some validity to the adage that wisdom comes with age. So I would oppose a blanket rule requiring lawmakers to retire at an arbitrary age certain.

That said (since today is my own birthday, and at 76 I am by no means a “spring chicken”), I can personally attest to the indignities the years bring. Memory and recall play tricks on the aging mind; the accelerating rate of technological change is especially disorienting to those of us who grew up with typewriters and rotary phones affixed to walls. Cultural changes embraced by our children and grandchildren can be difficult for us old folks to assimilate and accept.

And all of that is what aging does to healthy seniors, those of us who have retained substantial amounts of our physical vigor and intellectual capacities.

One positive consequence of the 2016 election–assuming we live through the disaster that is Donald Trump–is a new appreciation of the importance of a President’s mental health. It is likely–again, if we survive this–that along with a mandatory disclosure of taxes, a clean bill of physical and mental health will become legal requirements of presidential candidacies.

We need to seriously consider imposing a similar requirement on candidacies for the House and Senate. It’s bad enough that we have only cursory background checks for gun purchases; surely, voters are entitled to similarly cursory physical and psychological checks on people seeking positions where they can do considerably more harm than a deranged shooter.

We may not be able to disqualify the wackos like Roy Moore, but surely we can make Alzheimers a disqualification for public office.

The Closer You Look, The Meaner It Is

If your eyes glaze over at the prospect of getting down “in the weeds” of the Senate healthcare bill, Josh Marshall’s summary really tells you everything you need to know:

It has always been crystal clear for numerous reasons that the Senate health care repeal bill would be the like the House bill, both versions, just as it will be like the final bill that emerges from a conference committee. McConnell and Ryan knew that ball hiding about scores and legislative language would prevent reporters from saying this: Around 24 million Americans will lose their coverage, everyone will go back to the era of pre-existing conditions restrictions and lifetime limits. The freed up money will go to a big tax cut for the very wealthy. You didn’t need to see the legislative language to know this. It’s been a failure of journalism to pretend otherwise.

If, however, you want several specific compelling reasons to oppose this travesty, there are any number of reports and commentaries that can help. For example, we learn about several “buried” provisions from an article in the LA Times, in a column that describes the bill as a “poorly-disguised massive tax cut for the wealthy, paid for by cutting Medicaid — which serves the middle class and the poor — to the bone.” Then there’s this:

States will have more authority to reimpose lifetime and annual benefit caps and eliminate essential health benefits. This may be the most insidious provision of the repeal bill, and certainly is the most deeply hidden.

As several Governors–including Republican Governors– have noted, this grant of authority to the states will almost certainly be used, because the deep cuts in Medicaid and other federal funding will leave the states no choice.

The Affordable Care Act also had state waivers designed to allow for innovations, especially in state Medicaid programs. But under the ACA, those waivers could not  lead to fewer people being insured, or to the imposition of higher out-of-pocket expenses. The Senate bill repeals those limitations.

Under the measure, the secretary “must” approve a waiver request as long as it won’t increase the federal deficit. As a result, states would be able to eliminate the essential health benefits that all health plans must provide under the ACA — including hospitalization, prescription coverage, maternity care and substance abuse and mental health treatment. Since only essential health benefits are subject to the ban on lifetime and annual benefit limits, high-cost patients such as cancer victims and sufferers from chronic diseases could permanently lose their benefits in the course of their treatment.

And then there’s pre-existing conditions. As the Times reports,

Protection for people with preexisting conditions is destroyed. Senate Republicans claim in their talking points that the measure protects people with preexisting conditions from being denied coverage or priced out of the market. Don’t believe them…The Senate bill will open the door to states forcing people with preexisting conditions into segregated markets that will lead them to pay far, far higher costs than everyone else….This bill will bring the country back to a system in which insurance only works for the healthy, and the sick can’t afford the coverage they need.

There’s lots more. Older Americans will get hosed; under this bill as currently drafted, older Americans could be charged five times what younger, healthier Americans will pay. Meanwhile, the biggest tax cut for the rich is retroactive; a millionaire who already had booked a $1-million gain on a stock sale, for example, would collect a $38,000 benefit.(Even the Wall Street Journal was aghast at that one.)

And most despicable of all:

In fact, all the measure’s tax cuts taken together, valued at about $700 billion over 10 years, would be almost entirely paid for by the bill’s elimination of Medicaid expansion in the 30 states and the District of Columbia that accepted it.

The bill defunds Planned Parenthood. It cuts Medicaid so drastically that hundreds of thousands of elderly Americans will no longer be able to go to nursing homes, and rural hospitals that depend upon Medicaid will close. It will strip coverage from more than twenty million people, and take us back to the days when people had no choice but to use emergency rooms for primary care. The medical cost curve, which had been coming down under the ACA will once again rise more rapidly than the rate of inflation.

And why? To further enrich the already wealthy–and not so incidentally, to destroy the legacy of America’s first black President.

 

When You Take the Crazy Train….

A recent New York Times column by Linda Greenhouse follows the latest evolution of the Right’s attack on America’s judiciary.

Her introduction is arresting, to put it mildly.

Do you hold Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. responsible for the ascendancy of Donald Trump? The thought never crossed your mind? Then you probably haven’t been reading the conservative blogosphere, where Chief Justice Roberts, target of bitter criticism for his failure to vote to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, is now being blamed in some quarters for Donald Trump as well.

Evidently, the Chief Justice’s refusal to rule against the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act was a “sucker punch,” that robbed the Tea Party of a victory it “expected and deserved.” This defeat on an issue of constitutional interpretation meant–in the twisted “logic” of Tea Partiers–that there is no point relying on the courts.

Greenhouse says the lesson they internalized was “if you want to beat Obama you have to get your own strongman.” Guess who?

Even before the Trump-focused blame game started, Chief Justice Roberts was well on his way to becoming the political right’s favorite punching bag. In a rambling speech on the Senate floor last month, Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, defended the Republican refusal to move forward with President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland to fill the Supreme Court’s vacant seat. Playing off an observation the chief justice had made shortly before Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death, to the effect that the Senate confirmation process had become unfortunately divisive and political, Senator Grassley said it was the Roberts court itself that was political. “Physician, heal thyself,” he said, and then offered this observation:

Justices appointed by Republicans are generally committed to following the law. There are justices who frequently vote in a conservative way. But some of the justices appointed by Republicans often don’t vote in a way that advances conservative policy.

This is a reprise of an old song: if the Courts don’t rule the way I want them to–if they reach decisions incompatible with my preferences–they are “activist” and illegitimate and we are entitled to undermine both the individuals serving on them and the concept of separation of powers that is at the heart of our system of government.

Most lawyers I know would classify the Chief Justice as pretty conservative; his instincts seem to be to support institutional power, whether corporate or governmental. I have disagreed with several of his decisions, and with his articulation of a judicial philosophy. That said, he is clearly a brilliant lawyer whose jurisprudence falls within a longstanding American legal tradition.

The problem is that much of our current political leadership is unfamiliar with that tradition, ignorant of the role assigned to the Courts, and child-like in the belief that whenever a court renders a decision they don’t like, it must be illegitimate.

The problem is also larger than a bizarre attack on John Roberts. It is even larger than the profoundly damaging attack on the Supreme Court by Senate Republicans who are refusing to allow that body to discharge its constitutional duty of advice and consent.

The problem is, America is currently governed by  petty, uninformed, ahistorical and (in several cases) deranged individuals who have commandeered the Crazy Train and are taking the rest of us with them.