Senate Cutting Corners on Ethics Standards: White House

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By Cheryl Bolen

The White House blasted Senate Republicans for failing to hold President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet choices to the same ethics standards as they did for President Barack Obama’s nominees.

“What we’ve seen here is that the Republicans in the Senate are failing in their effort to advise and consent,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “It sounds like a lot of Americans who voted to ‘drain the swamp’ aren’t getting what they hoped for, even before their guy takes office,” he said.

In a letter dated Feb. 12, 2009, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) outlined to Senate Democrats the standards that Republicans expected before any choice would be considered. The letter ticked off eight items for each pick.

Among them, that a nominee’s Office of Government Ethics letter would be complete and submitted to the committee “in time for review and prior to a committee hearing,” the letter said. “These best practices serve the Senate well, and we will insist on their fair and consistent application,” McConnell’s letter said.

Trump Expects Cooperation

In raising concerns about Trump’s choices, including difficult conflict of interest challenges, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) was accused of “sour grapes” and delaying for delay’s sake.

“We’re not doing this for sport,” Schumer said from the Senate floor Jan. 9. “Democrats feel very strongly that pushing for a thorough and thoughtful vetting process is the right thing to do,” he said.

“I think Senate Democrats have two choices,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Jan. 9. “They can aimlessly follow Sen. Schumer and put the American economy and security at risk, because of the uncertainty created by a lack of continuity of government. Or they can join the timely and thorough vetting of Cabinet nominees and ensure the president is ready to govern on day one.”

“Our expectation is this Cabinet will receive broad bipartisan support throughout,” Spicer said.

Cutting Corners

The Obama administration never, in eight years, asked for a nomination hearing until the OGE had completed its review to ensure any conflicts had been resolved and the nominee’s OGE letter was complete, Earnest said.

Indeed, when Obama first took office in 2009, the U.S. and global economies were “hurtling off a cliff,” Earnest said. “We didn’t cut any corners on ethics, so I’d be interested to hear what sort of explanation Republicans in the Senate have for why they want to cut corners when it comes to ethics,” he said.

And, even more important than the background vetting are the arrangements that are put in place to ensure that conflicts of interest are eliminated, Earnest said.

Then and Now

“The irony here is that a number of questions have been raised about the nominees put forward by the president-elect with regard to their financial conflicts of interest,” Earnest said.

This is why it is “particularly egregious” that Republicans who had previously advocated so aggressively for ethical arrangements to be completed before the nominee’s hearing are now agreeing to hold hearings for nominees with obvious financial conflicts of interest, Earnest said.

“Now, [McConnell] and the rest of the Republicans are poised to fold like a cheap suit,” Earnest said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheryl Bolen in Washington at cbolen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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