The concept of transparency in government and politics has taken a real beating this past year.
GOP President-elect Donald Trump won the election but refused to release his income tax returns. That made it impossible for voters to gauge his truthfulness in boasting of his charitable contributions or look at his investments in Russia and other countries.
Related: Conflicts of Interest With Trump’s Businesses Are Already Occurring
Late last week, a top government ethics official, Walter M Shaub Jr., warned that Senate GOP leadership plans to confirm Trump’s top cabinet choices before all of their background checks are concluded – an extraordinary breach of the chamber’s constitutional “advise and consent” responsibilities.
In the Republicans’ haste to confirm seven of Trump’s most important cabinet selections, including Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as Attorney General and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Senate hearings will be held before the nominees have fully responded to requests for detailed information on their finances and personal and professional backgrounds, according to media reports.
Trump has assembled one of the wealthiest cabinets in history -- millionaires and billionaires with complex financial portfolios and decades of business dealings and potential conflicts of interest with the major federal departments and agencies they might soon lead.
Steven Mnuchin, a billionaire former Goldman Sachs partner, tapped to be secretary of the Treasure, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross who was nominated to be Commerce Secretary, and wealthy GOP political operative Betsy DeVos, who was picked to head the Department of Education, all have mind-boggling financial histories and dealings that need to be thoroughly vetted.
Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, informed Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts by letter Friday that the announced hearing schedule beginning Tuesday had stretched ethics investigators to the breaking point and that several of the nominees have not yet completed the vetting process.
“More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings,” Shaub said, according to The Washington Post. Shaub added that he is unaware of any occasion in the 40 years since the ethics office was established when the Senate held confirmation hearings before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.
Schumer complained over the weekend that Trump’s transition team had conspired with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other GOP leaders to “jam through” the nominations. What’s more, Schumer and other Democrats have urged the House Ethics Committee to begin investigating the stock holdings and investment strategy of Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), a leading proponent of dismantling Obamacare who has been nominated by Trump to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The Wall Street Journal reported late last month that Price traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related companies during the past four years while he sponsored legislation – including a replacement for Obamacare and a measure to privatize Medicare – that potentially could impact those companies’ stocks. Federal law prohibits members of Congress from trading on information they obtained in the course of their official work that was not available to the public, although the House ethics committee typically has trouble proving violations.
By now, Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington of big-money special interest influence and unsavory political practices has become laughable. Trump is scheduled to hold his first press conference in almost two months on Wednesday, and he is certain to be asked to spell out how he and his cabinet choices will avert flagrant conflicts of interest in assuming the reins of government and regulatory activity.
Some GOP aides disputed Shaub’s claim that no nominees in prior Republican and Democratic administrations were confirmed by the Senate before they submitted all the necessary paperwork and had been thoroughly vetted.
Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, Trump’s choice as the next White House chief of staff, on Sunday dismissed concerns about senators having to pass judgment on nominees without complete background information. Instead of complaining about the narrow timetable for action, Shaub and the Democrats need to hurry up and meet the deadline set by the Republicans, Priebus said on Fox News Sunday.
“They have to get moving, they have to move faster,” Priebus said. “They have all the information. These [nominees] are people who have been highly successful in their lives. They [the vetters] need to move quicker.”
Priebus added that voters are demanding swift action by the Senate. “Change was voted for and change we will get,” he said.
Meanwhile, McConnell said that it was time for the Democrats to “grow up” and get past their loss in the Nov. 8 election. "All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration in having not only lost the White House but having lost the Senate," McConnell said on CBS’s Face the Nation.
"I understand that," he added, "but we need to sort of grow up here and get past that."