Introducing her new anti-corruption legislation at the National Press Club Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.) began her remarks by highlighting two numbers: 73 and 18.
In 1958, Warren said, 73 percent of Americans responding to a poll from the National Election Survey said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing. By 2018, that number dropped to only 18 percent.
“I would love to stand here and tell you that this was some sudden drop after Donald Trump was elected,” Warren said. “But it wouldn’t be true. The problem is far bigger than Trump.”
Warren said Americans largely don’t trust their government because they think it works for the rich and powerful and not ordinary people.
“Here’s the kicker,” Warren said. “They’re right … our government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate and we need to call it out for what it is: corruption, plain and simple.”
The Senator outlined her sweeping new legislation, the “Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act,” which she described as an “aggressive set of reforms that would fundamentally change the way Washington does business.”
Today, I’m introducing the most ambitious anti-corruption legislation proposed in Congress since Watergate. This is an aggressive set of reforms that would fundamentally change the way Washington does business. #EndCorruptionNow
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 21, 2018
Among other provisions, the bill seeks to establish a new U.S. Office of Public Integrity, increase transparency, curtail the influence of powerful special interests in government and “end lobbying as we know it.”
“Corruption is a form of public cancer and Washington’s got it bad,” Warren said. “It’s time for treatment, time to isolate and quarantine the ability of big money to infect the decisions made every day by every branch of our government.”
Warren said that the fossil fuel industry, “greedy insurance companies,” “big pharma” and the for-profit prison industry, among other sectors, have been able to exert undue influence in the federal government through campaign contributions and “shady” lobbying techniques.
The legislation does not address the issue of corporate campaign contributions because the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United decision that restricting them is unconstitutional, Warren said.
Top among the bill’s priorities is closing the “revolving door” of powerful business leaders moving in and out of government.
The legislation would institute a lifetime ban on lobbying for presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress and cabinet secretaries. It would also prohibit “corporate lobbyists,” or those who work on behalf of for-profit entities from taking government positions for six years.
Executive branch employees would also be forced to recuse themselves from working on issues that might financially benefit a company that employed them within the last four years.
To illustrate the necessity of these measures, Warren cited the example of Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs who served as Trump’s top economic adviser until May.
Before accepting the position, Cohn received a bonus of about $250 million, a payment Warren described as a “pre-bribe.” While serving as Trump’s top economic advisor, Warren said Cohn was a key architect of a tax overhaul that saved Goldman Sachs about $250 million in just one quarter.
Warren’s legislation seeks to expand the definition of “lobbyist” to include any person who is paid to influence government. It further seeks to “radically” expand disclosure requirements so that all lobbying efforts would be a matter of public record.
The senator cited comments made this year by Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman who serves Trump’s head of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Financial Consumer Protection Bureau.
“If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you,” Mulvaney said about his time in Congress at the American Bankers Association conference in April.
Warren stressed that she believes the culture of corruption in the nation’s capital is not a partisan issue.
“This is not a Republican only problem … The Trump era has given us the most nakedly corrupt leadership this nation has seen in our lifetimes. But, they are not the cause of the rot. They’re just the biggest, stinkiest example of it,” she said.
When asked why she only cited examples of Republican officials in her speech, Warren quickly threw out the name of Mary-Jo White, a former Wall Street executive who served as President Barack Obama’s chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates investment banks.
Warren said White did a poor job regulating Wall Street banks, implementing only “the lightest touch of regulation” before moving right back into a Wall Street position after her appointment.
“There’s a pervasive culture of soft corruption that colors virtually every important decision made in Washington … we have a big systemic problem,” she said.
The senator expressed hope that the bill will receive support from people on both sides of the aisle, saying she is willing to work with anyone to pass anti-corruption reforms. She warned though that certain provisions will be unpopular with many officials who are doing well under the status quo.
“I’m sure that the people who make big money within this system will yell and scream and spend millions of dollars trying to stop these changes,” Warren said. “Inside Washington, some of these proposals will be very unpopular, even with my friends. Outside Washington, I expect that most people will see these ideas as no-brainers.”
The senator also preemptively criticized the media for its coverage of the issue, predicting that her bill will be widely labeled unrealistic.
“The all-day-long pundits … will say, ’this will never pass,’ and try to color me naive for even trying. But it’s that kind of self-serving groupthink that allowed corruption to spread through this town for decades,” she said.