Support Rep. Katherine Clark's Presidential Accountability Act

Support Rep. Katherine Clark's Presidential Accountability Act

If you've already called your senators about Trump's appointments, particularly Jeff Sessions, here's something you can you can do to help make life difficult for Trump come January 20th: call your congressional representatives to support Katherine Clark's presidential accountability act. The bill would, in a nutshell, extend federal laws against conflicts of interest to the President and Vice President, and require Trump to take the same steps to avoid conflicts of interest while in office that presidents since Lyndon Johnson have. 

If Trump were, say, taking a position as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in a Ted Cruz administration, he would have no choice but to either sell his assets or place them in a blind trust. The Ethics in Government Act requires it. In this alternate history, Trump might not be happy about having to sell his assets, but then Hank Paulson (one of Bush's Treasury Secretaries) might have preferred not to sell is $700 million stake in Goldman Sachs. Paulson did it anyway, because the law is the law.

Unfortunately, the Ethics in Government Act doesn't apply to the President and the Vice President. Past presidents have sought to comply with the spirit of the law anyway. In fact, the Office of Government Ethics has taken the official position that presidents should act as if the Ethics in Government Act applies to them (as the OGE helpfully pointed out to Trump via Twitter).

Applying the Ethics in Government Act to the president and veep as-written wouldn't quite work, because one of the main ways available for federal employees to stay within the law under Ethics in Government Act is to get approval from whoever appointed them. As the president and vice president are not appointed offices, this obviously wouldn't work. Thus, Clark's proposed Presidential Accountability Act contains a detailed definition of what would qualify as a "blind trust" under the law. Other that this, however, the two laws use extremely similar language.

Importantly, neither law requires the use of a blind trust. The Ethics in Government Act has been interpreted as allowing federal employees to own mutual funds, so if the law did apply to presidents, President Obama would be in the clear for the mutual funds where he keeps much of the money he earned from his book royalties, even though Obama (unlike other recent presidents) doesn't use a blind trust. Presumably, the Presidential Accountability Act would be interpreted in the same way. Given the great popularity of mutual funds as a way of saving for retirement, this should make the Presidential Accountability Act pretty easy to comply with.

I've heard a few people argue that it's unrealistic to expect Trump to put his assets in a blind trust, but on close inspection these arguments seem to boil down to "he'd really hate having to do it." But are we really supposed to believe that if the president really wants to do it, that means it shouldn't be illegal? Hank Paulson may have hated selling his stake in Goldman Sachs, but he sold it all the same. There's no reason for different rules to apply to Trump.

Another argument against the Presidential Accountability Act is that it might discourage successful business people from running for office. But the existing law didn't stop George W. Bush from nominating a series of bigshot CEOs to run the Treasury Department, nor has it stopped Trump from nominating two billionaires (so far) to serve in his cabinet. Furthermore, it's not clear if being a billionaire is a remotely good qualification for being president. In my experience, many business people devoutly believe their business experience gives them unique insights into economic policy, yet their actual pronouncements on economic policy are utterly daft.

If the Presidential Accountability Act would pose unique challenges for Trump, it's because his history of screwing investors might make it hard for him to find buyers for his current business ventures. But if the law disincentivizes con artists like Trump from running for president, that will just be icing on the cake.

The biggest weakness in Clark's proposal is that to enforce it, you'd probably need an impeachment, where the president could only be removed if 2/3 of the Senate voted to do so. But if it passes, we'll at least have gotten a handful of GOP congresscritters on-record as saying presidential corruption is an impeachable offense. It would be completely unsurprising if that came in handy at some point in the next four years. So call your senators and representatives today, and tell them you support Representative Clark's Presidential Accountability Act. (In case the staffer who answers your call asks, it's bill number HR6340.)

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