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Analysis

This Bill Would Combat the Erosion of Government Ethics

Brennan Center’s Mehrbani testifies on Capitol Hill in support of the For the People Act’s ethics reforms.

February 6, 2019

Amid mount­ing concerns over govern­ment ethics and trans­par­ency, Bren­nan Center lawyer and former White House person­nel director Rudy Mehrb­ani told members of Congress Wednes­day that the coun­try needs new laws to ensure account­ab­il­ity.

Mehrb­ani, Spitzer fellow and senior coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center, test­i­fied in a House Over­sight and Reform hear­ing on H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, which includes provi­sions such as requir­ing disclos­ure of pres­id­en­tial tax returns and tight­en­ing restric­tions on congres­sional conflicts of interest. The sweep­ing voting rights and anti-corrup­tion bill, which was first intro­duced on Janu­ary 3, marks the first time in decades that either major polit­ical party has made compre­hens­ive demo­cracy reform a cent­ral prior­ity.

“We have long assumed that all pres­id­en­tial admin­is­tra­tions would follow long­stand­ing ethics prac­tices and ideals that aren’t required by law,” said Mehrb­ani. “Unfor­tu­nately, these common­sense prac­tices that pres­id­ents from both parties followed for decades can no longer be taken for gran­ted. This means that new laws are needed to compel a commit­ment to ethics and ensure account­ab­il­ity.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the commit­tee chair, also made a stir­ring case for tack­ling voter suppres­sion, another key plank of the H.R. 1 bill that the Bren­nan Center supports. “Voting is crucial,” Cummings said during Wednes­day’s hear­ing. “And I don’t give a damn how you look at it. There are efforts to stop people from voting. That’s not right.”

The Bren­nan Center’s Mehrb­ani submit­ted writ­ten testi­mony in support of the Act in advance of Wednes­day’s hear­ing. He argues that:

  • We can no longer assume that pres­id­ents will adhere to the norms and ethics prac­tices followed by past admin­is­tra­tions;
  • Legis­lat­ive reform is needed to fill those ethics gaps and to hold polit­ical lead­ers account­able;
  • Strong ethics rules would support the goals of the polit­ical appoint­ments process; and
  • Congress should support the ethics reforms outlined in the For the People Act.

In response to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s conflicts of interest and ethical lapses, the Bren­nan Center published Strength­en­ing Pres­id­en­tial Ethics Law in Decem­ber 2017. The report puts forward the steps that Congress can take to address the gaps in the U.S. federal ethics system. Addi­tion­ally, the Bren­nan Center’s National Task Force on Rule of Law and Demo­cracy published an Octo­ber 2018 report that outlines propos­als for strength­en­ing govern­ment ethics and the rule of law.

(Image: Chip Somod­ev­illa/Getty)