Money in Politics Snapshots

The most important things happening in the world of money in politics and ethics.

Each month, we sort through the news to to give you a rundown of the most important things that happened in the world of money in politics and ethics. From the executive to the legislative branch, to state-level fights and beyond, our handpicked “snapshots” are what you need to know if, like most Americans, you’re ready to return government to the people.

June 2017

Here is the news from last month that you need to know:

States

  1. Money swamped the Georgia special election
  • The race, in which outside groups pumped huge sums, was the most expensive U.S. House election in history. Many of the ads kept voters in the dark about who was behind them.
  • After yet another special election defeat, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi faced criticism over her leadership. One outcome: light was shed on the role her fundraising ability plays in keeping her in power.
  1. Good: A bill to publicly finance campaigns gained traction in Washington, D.C.
  • Called the Fair Elections Act, the legislation would empower small donors and candidates in the District of Columbia.
  1. Bad: Seattle’s ‘democracy vouchers’ program slapped with a lawsuit
  • The suit claimed the first-of-its-kind system is unconstitutional.

Executive

  1. Lobbyists at home in the Trump administration
  • More than 100 of them are currently working for the president—2/3 of which work in agencies they once lobbied.
  • More ethics waivers for lobbyists were released after a demand from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). Three previously unknown Obama-era waivers came out in the process.
  • On a related note, the head of OGE called the waiver granted to White House aide Stephen Bannon “problematic” because it was issued retroactively, “inconsistent with the very concept of a waiver.”
  1. OGE released President Trump’s voluntary, updated financial disclosure
  • According to NPR, the report “adds some insight into the president’s sprawling business network. But not too much insight.” Nor was it meant to.
  1. Trump hosted a fundraiser for his 2020 reelection campaign
  • The venue? The Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., which once again raised questions about the ethics of the business arrangement.

Legislative

  1. Ethics allegations leveled at three Democrats
  • The independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) forwarded a complaint against two top House lawmakers and a staffer to the House Ethics Committee. Each case will be made public in August.
  1. Major players in 2018 elections began gearing up
  • The Koch brothers’ political network has already pledged to spend more than ever to secure and expand GOP control of the Senate.
  1. A former lobbyist shed light on our broken system
  • In a must-read piece, Jimmy Williams laid bare the “legalized bribery” both sides accept. One important message: “It’s a wonder members of the House and Senate actually have time to legislate when they spend so much of their damn time raising money.”

KEY BILLS INTRODUCED: 


May 2017 Snapshots Graphic

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May 2017

Here is the news from last month that you need to know:

Executive

  1. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) won fight for access to White House ethics waivers
  • After the White House asserted that the OGE lacked the authority to demand ethics waivers issued to administration officials (and tried to block their disclosure), it publicly backed down, posting more than a dozen waivers at the end of the month.
  • “It is an important step to see this list to see who is getting waivers and what is waived,” said Issue One’s Meredith McGehee. “Transparency is the key element for a White House which has basically declared it’s immune from conflict of interest laws and standards.”
  • Issue One also released a slate of proposed measures to modernize and empower OGE.
  1. The White House announced that President Trump would disclose 2016 personal finances
  • The move was voluntary. However, correspondence with OGE shows that Trump’s lawyer originally encouraged him to submit the report without signing to affirm it as true, but relented under pushback from OGE.
  1. The Trump Organization is not tracking foreign government profits to hotels
  • Despite promising to donate all profits from foreign governments back to the U.S. Treasury, news broke that the Trump Organization was not tracking all possible payments, once again raising questions about a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.

Judicial

  1. Highest court upheld ‘soft money’ ban
  • The Supreme Court once again affirmed the ban on ‘soft money’ to state and local parties.

Legislative

  1. The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) launched investigation, received complaint
  • OCE announced it was investigating Rep. Chris Collins’ (R-NY) role in persuading individuals, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, to invest in an Australian biotech company. A report found that 28 House members and six senators also traded stocks with potential conflicts within the last two years.
  • OCE received a complaint against Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) after reports of his ”blatant attempt at intimidation” against the employee of a donor.

States

  1. Money swamped special elections  
  • The special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District officially became the most expensive U.S. House race in history.  
  • The special election for Montana’s sole congressional district also saw a flood of money, with one candidate benefiting from nearly 90 percent of the race’s outside spending.
  1. Good state news
  • In Maryland, the Montgomery County Council approved an $11 million public campaign financing fund for the 2018 elections. This will be the first public financing fund in the state.
  1. Bad state news
  • A federal judge blocked portions of a Missouri voter-approved constitutional amendment to limit the influence of money in politics.

Outside spending

  1. Sec. Hillary Clinton launched a new 501(c)(4) political group
  1. Groups geared up work to reelect President Trump
  • Pro-Trump super PACs have already spent $1 million dollars on his 2020 reelection bid.

May 2017 Snapshots Graphic

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April 2017

Here are the things from April 2017 that you need to know:

Executive

  1. Trump appointees faced widespread reports of potential conflicts
  • With little transparency, the Trump White House and federal agencies have reportedly been stocked with former lobbyists, in some cases crafting policies for industries in which they previously served.
  • Some may have already violated ethics rules, but because of the secrecy around administration ethics waivers, it’s difficult to know the extent of the details. One senior adviser, departing the White House for a business lobby group, acknowledged that he was granted a waiver.
  • The Office of Government Ethics has been inundated with complaints.
  1. The White House announced it would not publish its visitor logs
  1. Trump, Pence allies traded connections for cash
  • Numerous people with ties to the president and vice president, including former campaign aides and fundraisers, cashed in on their connections with lobbying work, USA Today reported. Inaugural donor reports release
  1. Inaugural donor reports released
  1. POTUS will not release his tax returns
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that President Trump “has no intention” of publicly releasing his tax returns.
  1. Foreign money lands former national security adviser Michael Flynn under investigation 
  • The Pentagon’s top watchdog launched an investigation into money collected by retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn from foreign interest groups.
  • According to a 2014 letter, Flynn was warned by the Defense Department that he was “forbidden from receiving payments from foreign sources” without receiving permission from the U.S. government first.

Judicial

  1. Gorsuch took Supreme Court oath
  • Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court, overcoming a Democratic Party attempt to filibuster his nomination, in part due to money-in-politics concerns. During his nomination hearing, his views on money in politics remained unclear.

Legislative

  1. Congress introduced a bipartisan bill to overhaul the Federal Election Commission (FEC)
  • Re-introduced by Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Jim Renacci (R-OH), with five Republican and five Democratic original cosponsors, the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act (H.R. 2034) would reduce the number of FEC commissioners from six to five—eliminating partisan gridlock—and create a chair of the agency which serves a 10-year term. The bill also would establish a blue-ribbon commission to recommend nominees to the president.
  1. Rep. Ken Buck blasted the “pay to play” system in Congress
  • Buck (R-CO) released a tell-all book detailing the dues system both parties use to reward fundraising over policy experience when it comes to assigning top committee seats in Congress.
  1. House Oversight Committee questions Trump property emoluments
  • GOP Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings sent a letter to Trump’s lawyer inquiring about the president’s treatment of foreign government payments to his Washington, D.C. hotel.

States

  1. The Colorado House of Representatives killed two bills to shine a light on “dark money.”
  1. The governor of New Mexico vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have mandated disclosure of donors to  dark money political groups.
  1. After the South Dakota state government overturned voter-approved ethics measures, supporters announced plans to return with an anti-corruption constitutional amendment in 2018.
  1. The governor of Mississippi signed into law a campaign finance reform bill banning the use of campaign money for personal expense.
  1. The North Dakota House passed a new campaign finance report bill.
  1. A Maryland prohibition on foreign donations for ballot initiatives was signed into law.

Aprils 2017 Snapshots Graphic

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March 2017

Here are the things from March 2017 that you need to know:

Executive

  1. Former administration officials failed to sign ethics pledges
  • Three former Trump administration officials never signed mandatory ethics pledges, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, leading Issue One’s Meredith McGehee to tell the Associated Press: “At least so far, the ethical standards that are being applied to high-level officials coming in are quite incoherent and seemingly haphazard.”
  1. Ivanka Trump became an official White House employee (after backlash)
  • After backlash to the announcement that Ivanka Trump would join her father’s White House as an adviser without an official role (and according to White House counsel, not subject to an ethics agreement), Ivanka issued a statement saying she would become an official White House employee. (But, experts says problems remain.)
  1. Ethics concerns plague Trump administration— from transition to present
  • Carl Icahn’s dual role as investor and adviser to President Trump raised major ethics red flags.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics found the Trump administration’s ‘beachhead’ transition team was comprised of dozens of lobbyists.
  1. Trump White House rejects ethics course
  • The Trump White House reportedly rejected an ethics and management course designed to prepare officials for “some of the same issues that have become major stumbling blocks in the early days of the administration.” Both the Bush and Obama transition teams received the training.
  • The actions of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin publicly promoted ‘The LEGO Batman Movie,’ which his company produced, raised further questions of what ethics training (if any) high-level administration officials have received. Mnuchin later acknowledged he should not have made the statement.

Judicial

  1. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s money-in-politics views remain unclear
  • U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing testimony left senators and the public with “less clarity on his views on political spending, the Citizens United decision and the role of disclosure of money in politics” than before.

Legislative

  1. 15 years of congressional inaction on money-in-politics reform
  • March 27 marked the 15th anniversary of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as “McCain-Feingold’ or BCRA, putting in stark relief the lack of a bipartisan, federal response to our dysfunctional campaign finance system since then.
  • State legislatures, however, have been busy working on bipartisan reform, as ReThink Democracy outlined.
  1. Current and former representatives under investigation
  • California Rep. Duncan Hunter is under a Justice Department criminal investigation for alleged campaign finance violations.
  • Texas Rep. Steve Stockman was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly stealing from conservative foundations.
  1. The House Ethics Committee held its first public meeting this Congress

States

  1. South Dakota gets weaker reforms
  • After the South Dakota Legislature nixed voter-approved ethics reforms, the South Dakota governor signed a weaker package of bills into law.
  1. The New Mexico legislature sent a bipartisan ‘dark-money’ bill to the governor’s desk.

KEY BILLS INTRODUCED:


March 2017 Snapshots Graphic

Click to enlarge

February 2017

Here are the things from February 2017 that you need to know:

Executive

  1. Issues with President Trump’s Cabinet keep popping up
  • Betsy DeVos, a major Republican Party donor, was confirmed as the Secretary of Education, with 22 of the 23 Republican senators to whom the DeVos family donated voting for her confirmation.
  • Tom Price was confirmed as Health and Human Services Secretary (despite raising major ethics concerns along the way).
  • Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, appeared on Fox News to urge people to buy Ivanka Trump-brand products, igniting bipartisan condemnation and calls from the Office of Government Ethics for her to be disciplined.
  1. Commissioner Ann Ravel announces her resignation from the broken Federal Election Commission (FEC)
  • Upon making her announcement, Ravel also released a damning report and a New York Times op-ed, claiming the FEC’s partisan gridlock was “betraying the American public and jeopardizing our democracy.”
  • This establishes the first test for how President Trump will actually address money in politics reform: Will he fix the FEC, or further water down its enforcement abilities? Initial reports have not been promising.

Judicial

  1. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s money-in-politics stance called into question
  • After President Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the Campaign Legal Center released a report diving into his record on democracy law. One key finding? “Gorsuch’s judicial record on money in politics, while sparse, raises concerns.”

Legislative

  1. A previously under-the-radar change to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) shows the need for vigilance going forward
  • After Issue One’s Chief of Policy Meredith McGehee pointed out one important, under-the-radar change to the OCE last month, the story finally gets larger publicity.
  • McGehee took the opportunity to detail one new development to the story, namely Speaker Ryan’s appointment of “Doc” Hastings as OCE chair. Rep. Hastings formerly served as House Ethics Committee chair and has a checkered history with the OCE.
  • In the same piece, she also outlined three ways that Congress could sneakily further weaken the office, requiring constant vigilance from the reform community going forward.

TRUMP’S FIRST ADDRESS TO A JOIN SESSION OF CONGRESS

  • In his joint address to Congress, President Trump laid out a broad agenda, from jobs and health care, to taxes and national security, for change in Washington. However, it failed to address the real culprit behind gridlock in Washington: the undue influence moneyed interests have on decision-making by elected and appointed officials. Here is Issue One’s full response.

ALSO OF NOTE:

  • A steady stream of conflicts arose between the Trump Organization and the office of the presidency. The Defense Department announced it would lease space at Trump Tower, which Issue One’s Chief of Policy, Programs and Strategy Meredith McGehee cited as “one more example of how Trump has managed to use his business interests to profit off the presidency in ways never seen before.” See these other conflict stories that also broke last month.
  • Seattle launched its campaign finance reform voucher program. “This feels like just extra money that I can use to start participating more,” said one Seattle resident.

KEY BILLS INTRODUCED:


February 2017 Snapshot

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January 2017

Here are three things from January 2017 that you need to know:

Executive

  1. President Trump’s conflict of interest saga continues
  • Donald J. Trump, elected in part on promises to “drain the swamp,” was sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States.
  • Trump’s first press conference made clear that he would not put his assets in a blind trust, instead turning over control to his children, leaving the public with more questions than answers as to how, if at all, his administration would avoid conflicts of interest.
  • A prominent bipartisan group of lawyers, including White House ethics advisers and Issue One advisory board members Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, and constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, launched a suit in an attempt to answer the pressing question of whether President Trump is in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.
  • President Trump maintained his refusal to release his tax returns—yet that remains the only way the public can know for certain whether or not conflicts exist.
  • Additionally, President Trump fulfilled his promise to sign an executive order addressing executive branch ethics and the revolving door, though it was not made a day-one priority.
  • Ethics experts, including Issue One’s own Chief of Policy, Programs and Strategy Meredith McGehee, pointed out that, although much of the executive order mirrors President Obama’s own, there are several notable omissions. And at points, it actually strengthens the previous order.
  • A number of President Trump’s cabinet nominees have also faced ethical issues, including: Betsy DeVos, Steve MnuchinScott PruittAndrew Puzder, Rex Tillerson.

Legislative

  1. Congress tries (and fails) to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics
  • In the dead of the night on a holiday, right before the 115th Congress convened, House GOP leaders attempted to gut the independent, bipartisan Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
  • The Office was established in 2008 after the Jack Abramoff scandal showed the House Ethics Committee was unable to conduct credible investigations into allegations of congressional ethics violations.
  • The office is the only source for a credible investigation into congressional ethics, and as such, is little-loved by some elements in each party.
  • After a flood of calls and emails from livid constituents, fueled by intense scrutiny from journalists and groups like Issue One, House leadership took the unprecedented step to pull the proposal.
  • One little-noticed piece of the OCE amendment that did pass taints its bipartisan integrity. The amendment eliminates the requirement that both party leaders sign off on those individuals appointed to the OCE’s board. This makes clear that despite our early victory, the reform community must remain vigilant to further attacks on ethics in Congress.

States

  1. A fight for ethics reform in deep-red South Dakota unfolds
  • The South Dakota Legislature declared a “state of emergency” in order to repeal the state’s voter-approved Anti-Corruption Act.
  • Lawmakers claimed the measure is overly broad and perhaps unconstitutional, and South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard even asserted that voters were somehow ‘’misled’’ by the ballot initiative.
  • The attempt to ram through the repeal invited comparisons to the embarrassing OCE drama.
  • National attention and public outcry (and even calls from Republicans to slow down the process) caused the vote to be delayed one week. Despite this, the South Dakota Senate voted to repeal the measures. It now heads to Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s desk, where he is expected to sign the repeal bill.

KEY BILLS INTRODUCED:


January 2017 Snapshot

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