A Revival for Reform Republicanism?

Listen to the podcast segment "An ethical sweep" from the September 15, 2018 episode

I hate that, in 2018, so many people are so cynical about the condition of government that phrases like "deep state" and "drain the swamp" are in the parlance of ordinary conversation. It dismays me that there are enough examples of gross ethical failure on the part of elected and appointed officials in Washington that it feels quite a lot like we're re-living the scandal-ridden Warren Harding administration.

But I also hold out hope that, just as Harding was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge (surely one of the five most straight-shooting and honest Presidents), perhaps the current administration will be succeeded by a similarly clean and honest leader.

The Republican Party has always been at its best when it has been a pro-reform party, advancing a message of good, clean government. From its foundation as an anti-slavery party to Teddy Roosevelt's vigorous Republican progressivism, from Dwight Eisenhower's budget-balancing to Ronald Reagan's efforts to slow the growth of government, Republican leadership on the issue of the honest administration of government has always been one of the party's signature issues, on the Federal level as well as the state and local levels.

But any movement runs the risk of getting sloppy around the edges, and over time, the idea that government can be run well seems to have gotten lost. It hasn't helped that a quasi-anarchist streak has taken root in some Republican circles, where government itself is always framed as the enemy -- even in those cases where most level-headed people see a reasonable role for the republic to assert itself.

It also hasn't helped the situation that both major parties have tolerated bad behavior in their own ranks. Republicans endlessly decry the dubious fundraising practices of the Clinton Foundation, while Democrats can point right back at President Trump, who spends a quarter of his days in office visiting properties related to his personal business interests.

So it is high time for someone to step into the ethical gap, as we can applaud Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) for doing. Sasse is pushing a set of five reform bills that offer some hope for reviving Reform Republicanism:

  • Sasse Reform Bill #1 would prohibit anyone in the Cabinet from soliciting donations from foreign sources. Three cheers for that.
  • Sasse Reform Bill #2 would require Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns. This would convert convention into code, and one could argue it should go even farther: We really ought to know not just how much income those candidates are making, but how much they owe (and to whom) as well. Reportable income can be juiced through strategic accounting -- but liabilities are very, very real.
  • Sasse Reform Bill #3 would make HR-related settlements involving members of Congress more transparent and raise the personal financial stakes for members of Congress who misbehave. Seems about right: Membership in Congress shouldn't be a free pass; if anything, high office should require a higher standard of personal conduct.
  • Sasse Reform Bill #4 would freeze Congressional trading in the stock market. Given the broad access we give to Congress to investigate, regulate, and legislate -- all in the public interest -- it seems reasonable to take sensible precautions to ensure that the same access isn't used for personal gain. As it was put in Federalist 53, "No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate." Unless and until we see an end to Congressional deference to Executive Branch regulation-making, it may be wise to extend this same prohibition to people appointed to Cabinet agencies with similar power to make administrative law.
  • Sasse Reform Bill #5 would ban members of Congress -- for life -- from becoming paid lobbyists. Such a ban may not turn every ex-Senator into Cincinnatus, but it may have at least a marginal impact on promoting the idea of citizen-legislators who return to ordinary life among the people who elected them.

A lot of ink has been spilled in judging the character of the people serving in office in Washington. Some of it is unfair, much of it is cynical, and some of the scorn is appropriate. But ultimately, nothing gets better without reforms that get to the root systemic causes of the problems we see. Sasse's proposed ethics reforms are a step in the right direction, but they may not be popular with the members who would be affected by them. What matters now is whether the public voices support for a long-overdue revival of reform.

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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