Thursday, January 12, 2017

Congress and Ethics

When Socrates and his two great disciples composed a system of rational ethics, they were hardly proposing practical legislation for mankind. . . They were merely writing an eloquent epitaph for their country. George Santayana, The Life of Reason

It all happened within hours after the 115th Congress convened in January 2017. There was considerable anticipation that the first thing members of the House would do was introduce legislation to rid themselves and the country of the Affordable Care Act. To everyone’s surprise, however, that was not the first item on the agenda. The first item of business was to draw the public’s attention to the existence of a non-partisan ethics board that many of the 20 million people who had gotten insurance under Obamacare (and millions of others) did not even know existed-the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).

OCE is an independent board which is charged with investigating violations of the congressional ethics rules by members of Congress and their aides. If it finds violations, it votes on whether or not to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee so that that committee can conduct its own review. The OCE has no enforcement powers. Duncan Hunter, a Member of Congress from Alpine, California, affords us an example of how the office works.

In April 2016, OCE was asked to review Mr. Duncan’s use of campaign funds for personal expenses, by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington D.C. OCE referred the results of its investigation to the House Ethics Committee on August 31, 2016 and further action is in the hands of that committee. According to Mr. Duncan’s Chief of Staff, Mr. Duncan has reimbursed his campaign committee for more than $60,000 in expenditures that were made for such things as paying for private school tuitions, video games, travel to Hawaii and, most recently, $600 to fly a pet rabbit that was accompanying the family. The House Ethics Committee has not yet issued its report.

On January 2, 2017, one of the first items of business that was addressed by the House Republican Conference Committee, was voting to effectively kill the OCE by amending the package of rules the party planned to adopt the following day. In explaining the action, Representative Robert Goodlatte (R.Va.), said it would give lawmakers better protection from what some members see as overzealousness by the OCE. The lawmakers were probably also thinking that the OCE was a bit superfluous since only seven members or former members of Congress were convicted of criminal activities during the Obama administration, six during the George W. Bush administration, ten under the Clinton administration, and four under the George H.W. Bush administration. The kinds of offenses of which Members were convicted included, inter alia, such things felony tax evasion, possession of cocaine, wire fraud, extortion, racketeering, destroying evidence, felony theft, and financial corruption. It is entirely possible that if one were to pick a random group of 535 people (the same number as serve in Congress) and study them for an eight-year period, one would find a similar number convicted of criminal activities. Or maybe not.

With what Republicans in Congress see as being so few criminal convictions of members of Congress during preceding years, it is easy to see why they would like to strip the OCE of some of its powers. Nonetheless, before noon on the following day, members of the House responded to cooler heads, and a Trump tweet, and stripped the amendment from the rules that had been approved the night before. That was not, however, quite the end of their efforts to protect House members.

An unnoticed rule change that passed without public comment on the same day that the other amendment was abandoned, provides that: “Records created, generated, or received by the congressional office of a Member … are exclusively the personal property of the individual Member … and such Member … has control over such records.” Thus, if a member is being investigated by the OCE or the Justice Department for activities such as, for example, public corruption or misuse of funds, and the investigating authority needs access to records that are in the sole possession of the person being investigated, the person being investigated can decline to turn them over.

Sheila Kumolo, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics spoke to the Fiscal Times after the new rule was passed and asked: “Why on earth would Congress now create barriers to investigation and subpoenas of a member’s spending records? This only benefits the incumbent politicians who passed this rule and those who would flout it, not the system and certainly not the public.” The answer is, of course, because they could. That’s one of the perks that come with being in the majority.

(The following is a bit of whimsical trivia that has nothing to do with Congressional rule making:
Actual Donald Trump tweet of January 7, 2016: “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid people’, or fools, would think that it is bad.”

Fake news tweets from Joseph Stalin:

August 23, 1939, after signing the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact: “Having a good relationship with Adolph Hitler is a good thing. Only ‘stupid people’, or fools, would think that it is bad.”

Joseph Stalin, June 21, 1941, following invasion of Russia by Germany: “Hitler is bad. So sad.”)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Importance of Being a Trump

First there’s the children’s house of make believe. . . .
—Robert Frost, Directive

The children are having the best time. It’s more fun than playing with electric trains, kite flying or practically anything else you can think of. You can pretend that you are the president of the United States and make all sorts of important decisions. You can also impress your friends by helping them get REALLY good jobs in places like the White House in Washington D.C. What makes it even better is that it’s for real. Of course, only three out of the five children have gotten to play. Barron is only 11 and Tiffany, who is 21, is starting Harvard Law school.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Donald Jr. had an important voice in persuading his father, Donald J. Trump, to nominate Rep. Ryan Zinke to be Secretary of the Interior. Until Junior intervened, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State had been the lead candidate. According to the Wall Street Journal, Junior promoted Mr. Zinke because Mr. Zinke shares his “enthusiasm for hunting” which any objective observer would agree, is an important quality in a Secretary of the Interior. Politico reported that Junior sat in on interviews with the various candidates for the Interior position and made calls to the candidates during the selection process.

While Junior was helping dad pick the next Secretary of the Interior, his son, Eric, and daughter, Ivanka, came up with a really clever way of making money for the Eric Trump Foundation. (The Foundation helps fund the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of Tennessee.) Eric and Ivanka decided to auction off the opportunity for someone to have coffee with beautiful Ivanka. (It is she, about whom her dad once said, that if she weren’t his daughter he might be dating her.) Of course, having coffee with Ivanka is about more than simply basking in the glow of her good looks, although that would certainly be reward enough. Having coffee with Ivanka would give the winner an opportunity to get insights into what her dad is really thinking about doing when he becomes president. On the web posting promoting the auction, the ad said the estimated value of “Enjoy Coffee with Ivanka Trump in NYC or DC” was $50,000. Before the site was taken down the site reported that the highest bid thus far had been $67,888. That was probably in part because Ozan M. Ozkural, an investment manager from London, bid $50,000. According to the New York Times, he “hoped to gain insight into topics like . . . Trump’s possible future dealings with Turkey and other nations where Mr. Ozkural invests.” It was a brilliant fund raising opportunity until some super sensitive sort suggested that it didn’t look good for the Trump children to be auctioning off access. As of December 16, 2016 the auction was cancelled.

In addition to Mr. Trump’s three oldest children, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is also a member of the transition team and, according to a report by BBC news, was able to influence Donald in making important personnel choices. According to the report, Jared had, from time to time, clashed with Corey Lewandowski who had been Mr. Trump’s campaign manager. Mr. Kushner was numbered among those urging Mr. Trump to fire him and Mr. Trump did so in June 2016. He also successfully urged his father-in-law to select Michael Pence to be his running mate as vice-president, instead of New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, whom Mr. Trump had also been considering. Mr. Kushner’s antipathy towards Mr. Christie was, in part, because Mr. Kushner’s father is a convicted criminal who attained that status thanks to the work of then U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie. Mr. Kushner’s father was convicted on 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign contributions.

Mr. Kushner’s work as a member of the transition team has not been limited to helping Mr. Trump make important personnel decisions. He is also privy to Mr. Trump’s thinking on important issues. December 16, 2016, he attended an event in New York City and told attendees at the event that on some issues that would be confronting Mr. Trump when he assumed office, Mr. Trump’s positions would be closer to those of Charles Schumer, the Republican Senator from New York, than to those of Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senator from Tennessee, and the Majority Leader of the Senate. That was important information for attendees to have and, reportedly, surprised Republicans in Congress who had theretofore been unaware of the affinity between Messrs. Trump and Schumer.

Of course, being able to help form a new administration is not the only wonderful thing that has happened to the three Trump children. In return for the advice his children have given and are continuing to give their father, he is giving them complete control over all his assets. To avoid conflicts of interest, he will not tell them what to do when running the business. They will, of course, be able to continue giving him advice since they are not government employees and don’t have to worry about conflicts of interest. The rest of the country should be so lucky.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Trump, Choices, and Qualifications

I’m glad you like adverbs-I adore them. They are the only qualifications I really much respect.
— Henry James, Letter to Miss Edwards

Now that some of Donald Trump’s choices for important positions in his administration have been made, it is time to examine the reasons for some of those appointments. An early appointment was that of General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. He was selected for two reasons: his tenuous relationship with the truth, as shown by his promulgation of fake news over the years, a trait admired by Mr. Trump; and his former status as a general.

It might seem odd that he was considered qualified because he was a general, in view of Mr. Trump’s earlier descriptions of that genre. When discussing ISIS, a year ago, Mr. Trump said: “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” Later in the same interview he said that under the leadership of the current administration “the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.” That description seemed singularly appropriate for General Flynn. In General Flynn’s twitter account, the General promoted the fake news that Hillary Clinton was engaged in things like money laundering and sex crimes involving children. He said a program sponsored by the UN was designed to create a one world church that would prohibit Christianity. General Flynn’s fondness for fake news meshes nicely with Mr. Trump’s tenuous relationship with facts. Of course, Mr. Trump might deny that he ever said about generals what is quoted above and, instead, attribute the quote to inaccurate reporting. He recently explained on Fox News: “I think generals are terrific, you know. They go through schools and they sort of end up at the top of the pyramid, and it’s like a test. They passed the test of life.”

Another appointment that has been announced is that of Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, to be Secretary of Labor. Mr. Puzder opposes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In 2012 he was paid $4,485,055 including base salary and bonus. An employee earning $15 an hour would have to work approximately 299,300 hours each year to match Mr. Puzder’s income, an opportunity that is denied the typical hourly worker. (If the minimum wage were $8.00 an hour, the number of hours an employee would have to work to earn as much as Mr. Puzder did in 2012, would be almost 600,000 hours and that is an almost impossible task and would completely deprive a worker of any home life at all.)

After the election, but before his selection was announced, Mr. Puzder had a Fox Business Interview in which he was asked whether he would want to work in Trump’s cabinet. He responded saying: “I think it would be . . . the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” And that brings us the reason he may be a cabinet choice.

The advertisements that his company runs for hamburgers feature beautiful women wearing bikinis or short shorts. They appear to be deciding whether or not to eat the hamburger they are holding or caressing. The thought process causes them to interact with the hamburger they are holding, in such a way that the inattentive viewer may forget that what he or she is watching is an ad for a hamburger. When asked about these ads Mr. Puzder said he didn’t care if viewers find the ads offensive. “If you don’t complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, “What’s wrong with our ads. What you look at is, you look at sales. And, our sales go up.. . .I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American. [The brand] did take on my personality.” And herewith a possible reason for this particular appointment.

As Mr. Trump has made plain, his wife is not going to be moving to the White House at least until summer, if then. During the time she is not there, the White House will be a lonely place and Mr. Puzder, through his connections with the assorted models, can help relieve its loneliness. He can suggest to Mr. Trump that the women be invited to visit the White House for a hamburger dinner. Any model (or anyone else for that matter) would not consider declining. When recalling the famous taped conversation released in early October, in which Mr. Trump bragged about the perks he enjoyed as a star, when around beautiful women, it is not hard to imagine that those perks will be multiplied ten-fold when the attention he is paying these beautiful models is being paid by him, not as a star, but as the president of the United States. And their presence will certainly make up for any feelings of incompetence Mr. Trump might otherwise have, for occupying an office for which he is so clearly unqualified and unprepared.