Joe Manchin’s blatant conflict of interest may have a silver lining – Mother Jones



Senator Joe Manchin holds a press conference in Washington on October 6, 2021.Michael Brochstein / Zuma

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Senator Joe Manchin His role in overhauling the spending bill has sparked national interest in tackling conflicts of interest in Congress. The question is whether something significant could come out of it.

The current situation of the Biden administration shows what is at stake: The ambition to implement comprehensive climate action has been defeated by two centrist senators. One of them, West Virginia Democrat Manchin, owns millions of dollars in coal industry stocks and has so far received more donations from fossil fuel and energy companies than any other. senator.

Manchin demanded a reduction in the size of the budget bill from $ 3.5 trillion to $ 1.5 trillion. He expressly opposed the proposal Clean electricity performance program, a $ 150 billion bundle of carrots and financial sticks designed to shift America’s industries from fossil fuels to renewables.

More than any other proposal, CEPP was seen as essential for reducing CO2 and methane emissions — a plus. powerful greenhouse gases — to lift the world off the brink of climate catastrophe. Moreover, it would have slowly eroded fossil fuels, including coal, the industry that made Manchin and his family rich. But Manchin’s opposition killed CEPP, and now Democrats are scrambling to redo the invoice in a format acceptable to Manchin.

A politician controlling legislation that directly affects an industry his family benefits from is “not illegal,” notes Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist for the nonprofit group. Public citizen. “And this is not a violation of the ethical rules of Congress. But it is a statement about the pathetic weakness of the ethical rules of Congress. “

Many industries are governed by laws or codes of ethics that affect financial disputes. Under Stark Law, physicians are prohibited from referring patients directly to outside medical services in which they have a financial stake. Professionals certified by the American Bankers Association must agree to conduct their business “in a manner that avoids a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Journalists, certainly in mainstream publications, are generally prohibited from accepting gifts from sources or writing about businesses and industries in which they or a member of their immediate family has a financial interest. Judges are ethically and legally obligated to recuse themselves from cases that could affect their financial fortunes – and the scandal erupts when, at the end, they don’t.

The Democratic caucus recently had the chance to back a bill that could have prevented the Manchin situation, but they did not take advantage of it. In 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren presented the Law on the fight against corruption and public integrity, a sweeping bill that would have tightened restrictions on conflict of interest and banned members of Congress from owning or trading individual stocks, like the Federal Reserve asked last week of its own senior officials. Even in the wake of the Trump administration’s brazen conflicts of interest, which prompted Walter Shaub, then director of the US Office of Government Ethics, to to resign shortly after Trump’s takeover – not a single congressman to leave co-sponsored Warren’s bill.

Warren is reintroduce the bill, which Public Citizen helped draft, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced a House version, to which six other lawmakers — Res. Ilhan Omar, John Sarbanes, Janice Schakowsky, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Mark Pocan and Eleanor Holmes Norton — have sign.

Right now, there’s only one rule in the books governing the type of conflict Manchin faces, says Holman, and it’s narrow. Lawmakers cannot take any legislative action that would affect their businesses or investments uniquely. But they can act on legislation that affects a sector of activity even if they hold investments in that sector. “That’s exactly what Manchin is doing – trying to craft policies that benefit the coal industry in general, and that will also personally benefit his wealth and that of his family,” Holman said.

Financial conflicts plague every corner of government, says Claire Finkelstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and academic director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law. Congress is certainly no exception: “We have had case after case after case of members of Congress where we suddenly learn that they have stocks or engage in transactions in areas relevant to their legislation. And it continues to happen.

Take Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who lost her reelection bid last year. Loeffler was appointed to the agriculture committee although he $ 5 to $ 25 million value of shares in companies that the committee oversees. (She then withdrew from the committee.) Loeffler was also the subject of a Justice Department investigation alongside his Republican colleague James M. Inhofe and Democrat Dianne Feinstein for selling shares after he received a private briefing on the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. The department did do not prosecute the charges of insider trading because the behavior of the legislator was deemed legal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised eyebrows as she bought between $ 500,000 and $ 1 million in Tesla stock options in December 2020, at a time when the EV sector would benefit from a democratic expansion of renewable energies. According to her public disclosures, Pelosi has also invested substantial sums in Apple and Disney. Pelosi’s purchases are a testament to the normalization of ethical lapses that many institutions will not tolerate. “It’s a huge problem in itself, the lack of clash around conflicts of interest,” said Finkelstein. “You almost assume that will be the case. “

There are other ways to resolve conflicts, she adds, such as vigorous prosecution of lawmakers who violate insider trading laws, tighter financial disclosure requirements, and increased oversight. . But “Congress should be prepared to self-regulate, to say ‘we’re going to tie our hands.’ No one else can do it, unfortunately.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have historically been reluctant to hold themselves to the same ethical standards that guide the judiciary and the executive. Reform efforts are rare, and only a handful have succeeded.

In response to Watergate, Congress adopted rules, in 1978, which required public officials to disclose their financial and professional activities and those of members of their immediate family. The Stocks Act of 2012 banned senior federal officials, including lawmakers, from insider trading, and demanded that their financial information be made transparent and accessible. But in 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced an invoice — which quickly passed-this canceled the parts of the bill that allowed members of the public to view financial disclosures.

But lawmakers violated even the weakened Stock Act. As NPR reported last month, the Campaign legal center filed ethics complaints stating that seven members of the House, including four Democrats, failed to report stock transactions. The results, NPR reported, are “the latest example of a bipartisan trend that emerged nearly 10 years after Congress overwhelmingly passed a law to ensure transparency and show lawmakers do not profit from their work: Members of Congress ignore the law on disclosure ”.

The targets of the complaints include Republican Republican Representatives Warren Davidson of Ohio, Lance Gooden of Texas and Roger Williams of Texas, as well as Democrats Cindy Axne of Iowa, Bobby Scott of Virginia, Tom Suozzi of New York and Delegate of Guam Michael San Nicolas. . Suozzi, according to the Campaign Legal Center, did not disclose about 300 transactions.

“With all the reforms I’ve been able to help push through Congress, it’s always a reaction to Congress being embarrassed by its own scandals,” Public Citizen’s Holman told me. It gives him some hope that Biden’s budget debacle will make ethics reform a higher priority: “Manchin undermining the global climate in order to earn an extra $ 20 million in his own pocket, something like that could help push through further changes. “

This damage is already done. The administration published last week intelligence reports who said climate change will exacerbate risks to national security interests and highlighted global problems from which “no country will be spared.” Next week, Biden will attend COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where he will arrive with a watered-down set of laws and possible executive decrees that will likely fall well short of heroic rhetoric. with which his term began. Show up with weak policies, experts predict, undermine global climate efforts and American credibility at this crucial summit.

If, as Holman suggests, party humiliation and voter disappointment are catalysts for ethics reform, Warren and Jayapal’s bill will stand a slightly better chance. Then again, they should also involve Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema with this one.

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