Editorial: More transparency not enough to fix presidential conflicts of interest – Boulder Daily Camera

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An unlikely pair of federal lawmakers are combining forces on a presidential ethics reform bill. The effort is promising in that it shows bipartisan recognition of how current ethics laws covering top executive branch officials and their families remain woefully inadequate.

Despite the promising signal from this bill, however, the proposal itself doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The Presidential Ethics Reform Act from Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California and Republican Rep. James Comer of Kentucky appropriately seeks to tackle the inherent appearance of a conflict of interest that comes with allowing the families of presidents and vice presidents to profit from foreign entities while their relatives help direct U.S. foreign policy. The legislation would require additional reporting and disclosure involving foreign funds, gifts, loans, trips and conflicts of interest, as well as the disclosure of presidents’ and vice presidents’ tax returns.

This added transparency would be a positive step forward, but ultimately an inadequate one. Rather than bolstering the transparency around questionable activities involving executive branch family members and foreign entities, Congress should ban those activities entirely.

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“The American people deserve nothing less than full honesty and transparency from presidents and vice presidents,” Porter said in a May 22 press release with Comer. “By boosting transparency and requiring additional financial disclosures, Congress can shine a light on improper conduct in the executive branch — or be confident that none occurred. These reforms will help restore Americans’ trust in government and strengthen our democracy.”

“The Presidential Ethics Reform Act is landmark bipartisan legislation that delivers the transparency and accountability the American people deserve to ensure our public offices are not for sale,” Comer said in his own statement. “Influence peddling is a cottage industry in Washington and we’ve identified deficiencies in current law that have led to a culture of corruption.”

Porter and Comer are correct that more transparency could help better ensure that executive branch leaders and their families are not improperly profiting off their public roles. (The same is true for members of Congress, by the way.) But even if additional reporting and disclosure can help identify potential impropriety, the fact remains that current ethics laws allow activities — disclosed or not — that clearly present a conflict of interest and undermine public confidence in U.S. institutions.

“By creating this bipartisan legislation to provide greater transparency to the financial interactions related to the office of the president and vice-president, we can ensure that moving forward American presidents, vice presidents, and their family members cannot profit from their proximity to power,” Comer continued.

Comer, notably, has been a leading figure in the House Republican impeachment efforts involving President Joe Biden. That impeachment inquiry has been an irresponsible, and so far fruitless, wild goose chase conducted by House Republicans. And, at the same time, a key piece of the underlying situation under review — a former vice president’s son serving on the board of a foreign energy company while his father helped lead U.S. government efforts in that country — never should have been allowed in the first place.

We haven’t seen any compelling proof in the House impeachment process that Hunter Biden or Joe Biden broke any laws in the Burisma situation (Hunter Biden’s tax and gun issues are another matter). But we continue to believe that the younger Biden’s role with a Ukrainian natural gas company, while seemingly legal, should not have been. Just as Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner should not have been able to benefit from a multibillion dollar investment from Saudi Arabia after playing a key role in Saudi relations during the Trump administration.

Stronger federal ethics laws — not executive orders, which can quickly be rescinded by any administration — are sorely needed to give the American people better confidence that public service is not a back door to private enrichment. Lawmakers can do that by definitively and broadly prohibiting that kind of behavior, not just by improving the tools to identify it. We applaud Porter and Comer for advancing this conversation, but Congress should go even further to address the longstanding and bipartisan problem of insufficient ethics laws.

— The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)

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