In her anti-corruption plan rolled out Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes aim at the underbelly of the federal government’s top institutions and the behind-the-scenes ways they often work.
Broadly, her goal is to identify, document and eliminate conflicts of interest clouding leaders’ decision-making, and strengthen punishments for those who break the rules.
“The goal of these measures is straightforward: to take power away from the wealthy and the well-connected in Washington and put it back where it belongs — in the hands of the people,” Warren wrote on Medium.
The plan addresses lobbying, anti-corruption laws, transparency and public integrity. And it targets all the ways corruption worms its way into politics.
To make the federal courts more fair, Warren laid out four specific actions.
Perhaps most importantly, Warren calls for judges to face investigations for their misconduct, even if they resign.
She cited three examples in her plan, including Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, who was accused of sexual misconduct by former clerks. He avoided an ethics investigation by resigning because the Judicial Council said it no longer had legal authority to look into the claims against him if he wasn’t on the bench.
Warren also mentioned Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had allegations of perjury and sexual assault dismissed when he was confirmed, charges that have resurfaced in the wake of new reporting.
She also cited Maryanne Trump-Barry, President Donald Trump’s sister.
Trump-Barry resigned from her position as a federal appellate judge and ended a broader investigation into the Trump family for its involvement in tax schemes, including potential fraud.
“Under my plan, investigations will remain open until their findings are made public and any penalties for misconduct are issued,” Warren wrote.
Another part of her plan ensures the Supreme Court follows a code of conduct, like all other federal judges. She wants to apply the Code of Conduct for United States Judges to the justices.
In a March hearing, Justice Elena Kagan said Chief Justice John Roberts was looking into a potential individual code of conduct for the Supreme Court to follow, but the Court has yet to release information about whether there’s been progress on the topic.
Warren’s plan also prohibits judges from accepting gifts and creates a separate fund for travel expenses.
“Corporations and advocacy organizations routinely provide federal judges with all-expenses-paid trips to extravagant seminars,” she said.
Much of the Supreme Court’s work is done behind closed doors. No recording is allowed in the courtroom and audio of testimony is available by the end of the week at the earliest. Information about whether judges are acting ethically often is kept quiet, too.
“My plan requires the Judicial Conference of the United States — the institution in charge of administering our federal courts — to publicly post judges’ financial reports, recusal decisions and speeches to bring these activities out of the shadows,” Warren said.
Another key part to Warren’s proposal is increasing government transparency by preventing courts from sealing records affecting public health and safety. She also wants to make federal appellate court records and proceedings more accessible with livestreams and electronic records, which wouldn’t apply to the Supreme Court.
Conflicts of Interest
The judiciary isn’t her only target for reform, though. Warren’s plans also address the presidency and vice-presidency and extends to anyone who does business with the federal government.
For the top two executive positions, Warren wrote, “Under my plan, Presidents and Vice Presidents would be required to place their businesses into a blind trust to be sold off. No more payoffs. No more bribes from foreign governments. No more self-dealing.”
Her plans also calls for the Internal Revenue Service to automatically disclose at least eight years of tax returns for all federally elected officials and qualified candidates.
Warren also wants to ban government officials from trading stocks while in office, stop congressional employees from serving on corporate boards, and more strictly enforce insider trading on Wall Street.
Connections Between Government, Industry
“When someone serves in government with plans to immediately turn around and work in the industry they’ve been overseeing, that individual faces obvious incentives to advance the interests of their future employer,” Warren wrote.
Her plan imposes rules requiring federal employees to wait two years before becoming lobbyists, or six years for corporate lobbyists. Lobbyists would have to wait two years before becoming federal employees.
Members of Congress, judges and Cabinet secretaries would face a permanent ban on lobbying after leaving office.
Companies also would be banned from immediately hiring people who worked in government service.
Warren noted lobbyists have been part of the American political system since its inception, but the lobbying industry wasn’t always the influential powerhouse it is now.
Her first step would be to ban all lobbying for foreign entities.
“Other nations have ambassadors and diplomatic staff in the United States,” she wrote. “If those governments want to interact with our political process they can do so through normal, above-board diplomatic channels.”
Warren’s plan also bans lobbyists from making political contributions and from hosting fundraisers for political candidates. Lobbyists have to publicly report meetings with congressional staff and public officials, the documents they provided in those meetings and all the government actions they attempted to influence.
This, she wrote, would help Congress remain independent from lobbyists.
Ultimately, fighting corruption doesn’t mean anything unless perpetrators face consequences.
Warren said she wanted to establish a new office to investigate ethics complaints and impose penalties for violations. She also wants to strengthen existing enforcement agencies, like the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“In Washington, corrupt actors should face penalties when they break the law–not return to business as usual,” she said.
Warren has called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and limit the extent to which corporations can influence politics.
“I believe that we can root out corruption in Washington,” she wrote. “I believe we must make big, structural changes that will once again restore our trust in government by showing that it can work for all of us. And when I’m president, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
By Nikoel Hytrek