President-elect Trump: Setting O.C.E. priorities for Congress

Blake Farenthold of Texas, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Sam Graves of Missouri, all investigated for corruption, were prominent among House Republicans who wanted to kill the ethics office.

Image courtesy Donald Trump

WASHINGTON, January 9, 2017 — On the first day of the new Congress, House Republicans met in secret. Their first order of business was to vote to eliminate the quasi-independent office that investigates House ethics. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., was the architect of the attack on the Office of Congressional Ethics, known as O.C.E.

The rules change would have prevented the office from investigating potentially criminal allegations, allowed members of the House Ethics Committee to shut down any O.C.E. investigation and silenced staff members in their dealings with the news media.

The O.C.E. was created in 2008, after a series of bribery and corruption scandals involving members of both parties. Three House members were sent to jail.

Among those joining Rep. Goodlatte in calling for the end of O.C.E. were Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who had been investigated by the O.C.E. for sexual harassment, and Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., who was investigated after he and his wife took a $24,000 trip to Taiwan, which appeared to have been improperly  paid for by the Taiwanese government.

Another was Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who was ranking member of the House Committee on Small Business in 2009, when he invited expert testimony on the renewable fuel industry from a representative of a renewable fuels business in which his wife had a financial stake. That was a potential conflict of interest.

Another advocate of ending O.C.E. was Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who last year tried to eliminate the entire O.C.E. budget after it investigated one of his staff members. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Cali., another supporter of eliminating O.C.E., has used campaign funds for personal expenses, which is illegal. Among his reported expenditures:  $1,400 for a dentist, $2,000 for a Thanksgiving trip to Italy, and $600 to take his children’s pet bunny on a commercial airplane.

After these expenses were exposed, he reimbursed his campaign $62,000.

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President-elect Donald Trump quickly weighed in on O.C.E., questioning the priorities of Republican members of Congress. Shortly after, lawmakers were summoned to the basement of the Capitol for a meeting with Republican leaders. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Cali., the majority leader, asked his fellow Republicans whether they had campaigned to repeal the Affordable Care Act or to eliminate the ethics office? Shortly after this, the idea of eliminating the O.C.E. was scrapped.

This was not the first time that House lawmakers—Democrats and Republicans—had tried to curtail the powers or budget of the O.C.E. In 2011, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., who later left Congress to join the Obama administration, tried to cut the agency’s budget by 40 percent, a proposal that failed on a 302-102 vote. The Republican effort, just after the election of Donald Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, was viewed as tone-deaf in the extreme.

The Economist said that the vote to eliminate the O.C.E., “showed those lawmakers to have a lack self-awareness to an amazing degree.”  Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said, “Mr. Trump campaigned that he was going to drain the swamp, and here we are on Day 1 trying to fill the swamp … I just could not believe that the Congress does not understand that, if anything, we need to bring sunshine in.”

Mark Twain pointed out that Congress was our only “native born criminal class.” The evidence in recent years would fill volumes. In 2009, Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was convicted of corruption charges in a case made famous by the $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer. Federal jurors found Jefferson guilty of using his congressional office as a criminal enterprise to enrich himself, soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to support his business ventures in Africa.

While the Jefferson case is an extreme example of congressional corruption, his attorney’s defense that, in effect, “everyone does it,” is not as far-fetched as it may appear. Other members of Congress may not have $90,000 in their freezers, but too many are guilty of questionable activities.

Just as Jefferson’s trial began, we learned of Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign’s affair with an aide and the subsequent payments to her family by his parents. Also at that time, New York Democrat Charles Rangel, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was the subject of several ethics investigations. These were for matters ranging from his occupying four apartments at below market rents in a Harlem building owned by a prominent real estate developer to his admission that he had neglected to pay some taxes by failing to report $75,000 in income in rental income earned from a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic.

The Wall Street Journal commented:  “Ever notice that those who endorse high taxes and those who actually pay them aren’t the same people?”

There is, of course, the larger question of the ethical standards of the Congress, beyond activities which are clearly illegal. Members of Congress subsidize, in one form or another, a host of special interests that includes farmers, businessmen, Wall Street, universities, welfare recipients, and labor unions with each group having a special Political Action Committee (PAC) that contributes to members’ campaigns.

Cuts in subsidies to these groups will provoke cuts in contributions. The result: every group gets what it wants, and the budget deficits skyrocket. Added to this business-as-usual subsidization are the bailouts of failed banks, Wall Street firms, and auto companies, turning traditional ideas of free enterprise on their head. This is the “crony capitalism” now embraced by both political parties.

We have created in America a permanent political class that has an interest in ever-expanding government. The party out of power always says that government is too big, but once it comes to power, it makes it even bigger.

Republicans accuse Democrats of being supporters of “big government,” which is true enough, but government power has also grown dramatically under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. When will voters finally understand that both of our political parties are co-conspirators in the growth of both government power and our huge deficits?

This is something the Founding Fathers sought to prevent and would be sorry to see.

But they wouldn’t be surprised.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, observed:

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. One of the profoundest preferences in human nature is for satisfying one’s needs and desires with the least possible exertion;  for appropriating wealth produced by the labor of others, rather than producing it by one’s own labor…In other words, the stronger the government, the weaker the producer, the less consideration need be given him and the more might be taken away from him. A deep instinct of human nature being for these reasons in favor of strong government, nothing could be a more natural progress of things than for Liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

It was because of their fear of governmental power that the framers of the Constitution limited government through the Bill of Rights and divided its authority through our federal system. By establishing the executive,  legislative and judicial branches, and by dividing authority between the state and national governments, the framers hoped to ensure that no branch of government would ever obtain so much power that it would be a threat to freedom.

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The kind of activist government we have now, involved in every aspect of people’s lives, even running an automobile company, is the opposite of what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Great philosophers have long predicted that democratic government would not long preserve freedom. Plato, Aristotle, and more recently, De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macauley predicted that men would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security.

French political philosopher Bertrand De Jouvenal noted:

“The state, when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments.”

Voters say that they are against big government and oppose inflation and deficit spending, but when it comes to their own particular share, they act in a different way entirely.

Walter Judd, who represented Minnesota in Congress for many years, once recalled a Republican businessman from his district:

“[He] normally decried deficit spending, berated me for voting against a bill which would have brought several million federal dollars into our city. My answer was, ‘Where do you think federal funds for Minneapolis come from? People in St. Paul? My years in public life have taught me that politicians and citizens alike invariably claim that government spending should be restrained, except where the restraints cut off federal dollars flowing into their cities or their pocketbooks.”

If each group curbed its demands upon government, it would not be difficult to balance the budget and restore health to the economy. But as long as we allow politicians to solicit virtually unlimited amounts of money from special interests with business before Congress, this is unlikely.

Human nature leads to the unfortunate situation in which, under a representative government people have learned that they can secure funds for themselves that have, in fact, been produced by the hard work of others.

This point was made more than 200 years ago by the British historian Alexander Tytler:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.  It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.  From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury—with the result that democracy collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by dictatorship.”

The Founding Fathers never envisioned the creation of a permanent political class such as the one we have now.  They believed that men would be farmers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and would devote several years of their lives to public service and then go home to their careers.

Today, however, we have professional politicians, men, and women who support their families by holding public office and intend to do so for many years. When they do leave public office, most do not go home and many remain in Washington as high-priced lobbyists.

Their motivation, it seems, is clearly whatever will permit them to do so, not the long-run best interests of the country. Incumbents running for re-election in one-party districts raise millions from special interests which they do not need for their campaigns and can keep it when they leave Congress.

The incoming Trump administration promises to “drain the swamp.” It will be interesting to see how this proceeds. We must keep in mind that Members of Congress respond to our demands. As long as we—individuals, farmers, Wall Street banks and other special interests—seek to be subsidized by the government, the politicians of both parties will comply.

In this sense, our own selfishness, as well as theirs, is the culprit. The term “congressional ethics” may indeed be an oxymoron. But the ethics of the rest of us may not be far behind. In a sense, then, we have the kind of government we deserve, one which indeed represents our values. A brazen effort to eliminate the independent ethics office by a secret vote of House Republicans shows us how far we have gone down this path.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.