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Partisanship Is Killing a Bipartisan Presidential Ethics Bill

A bill forcing new disclosures for the president, written by Oversight Chairman James Comer and progressive Rep. Katie Porter, is suffering a slow and common fate: death by politics.

James Comer
Rep. James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, argues a point as the House Rules Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

As Donald Trump makes another run at the White House, some Republicans are ready to pass new rules that would force him — if he wins — to be transparent about his family’s businesses and gifts he receives.

But some Democrats aren’t entirely enthusiastic about the effort this election year for a simple reason: The rules would also apply to President Joe Biden.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, told NOTUS he thought about co-sponsoring the new bipartisan presidential disclosures bill — written by GOP Oversight Chairman James Comer and progressive Rep. Katie Porter — but he ultimately chose not to sign on because he feared it “was being weaponized in a way to score political points.”

“I looked at some of the comments that people were going to be making,” he said of his decision. “It wasn’t a very serious effort.”

Khanna denied that he spoke with anyone at the White House about it, but he said, for him to support it, he’d want an agreement with his colleagues “to make it clear that we weren’t going to use it as a political cudgel against any of the candidates, and really focus on reform.”

The bill would require presidents and vice presidents to disclose conflicts of interest, their tax returns and official trips that immediate family members accompanied them on for business purposes. It would also force presidents, vice presidents and their immediate family members to report payments and other items of value received from foreign sources in the two years prior to taking office, throughout their terms, and in the two years after leaving the role.

Many members say they could support those ideas in theory, but the legislation has seemingly gained no momentum since it was announced a month ago. Most of the lawmakers who spoke with NOTUS about it this week weren’t familiar with the details, even though it was inspired by one of the most high-profile investigations of the 118th Congress.

The Democrats who were willing to talk about it said they were skeptical of the intentions behind it. Comer introduced the bill after probing the Biden family’s businesses and financial activities. Democrats have criticized that investigation as a fishing expedition.

“The concept is something that I am sympathetic toward,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat. But “anything Comer,” McGovern said, “I’ve got to not only read, but read twice or three times.”

“He’s done more to damage this institution and more to sow seeds of distrust among the American people about government than almost anyone else in this House,” McGovern continued, adding that “the idea that he’s doing any good is a little bit shocking to me.”

A spokesperson for Comer responded that the Oversight chairman “is going to great lengths” to pass the bill.

“The Committee intends to hold a legislative markup on the landmark ethics bill in the near future,” this person said.

Despite his reservations, McGovern sees a window of opportunity. He was alarmed by Trump’s many business interests during his presidency, and he thinks the disclosures applying to Biden won’t be enough of a deterrent to oppose the bill.

“If it truly is what it’s advertised to be, I think it’s something Democrats should take seriously,” McGovern said. “People have a right to know if the president’s spouse or the president’s son or daughter is involved in shady business deals or whatever.”

Bills like these always face tough odds. The coalitions supporting them are always changing, depending on who controls the government. While lawmakers across the political spectrum say they love accountability, in practice, they love it a lot more when their party doesn’t hold the White House.

It’s not clear if the measure will even get a vote. House Speaker Mike Johnson’s office did not respond to two questions from NOTUS in May and June about whether he supports the bill or plans to bring it to the floor. Republicans were wary of past Democratic efforts to impose more oversight on the president in response to Trump’s time in office, resisting anything that could be seen as an attack on their man.

But the prospect of the disclosures applying to Trump is attractive to Democrats.

“It probably makes sense,” Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat, said. “Looking at the former president, he had no ethics.”

Still, he doesn’t think it’s particularly urgent to pass before the election. “We won’t be able to use the bill and impose it on Trump, because he’s not going to win in November,” Frost told NOTUS.

Porter, the California Democrat who wrote the legislation with Comer, has blamed the Biden administration for undercutting the bill’s chances.

“I was excited to come to Washington to introduce my bill. And was proud that I had found three senior Democratic co-sponsors. When I landed, I was really disappointed to learn that those co-sponsors had decided not to support the bill and had had conversations with the White House,” Porter told The Hill last week.

Some of her other Democratic colleagues said although they hadn’t spoken with her about it yet, they are open to the idea — even if it forces Biden to share more information about his finances.

“I don’t think President Biden has anything to hide,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss told NOTUS. “More transparency for the most powerful person in the world about what potential conflicts of interest they might have would be appropriate.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York said it sounded like a good idea.

Before being asked about it by NOTUS this week, though, he wasn’t in the loop on the legislation. “I hadn’t even heard about it,” he said.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.