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Senate’s random disclosure rules stoke Trump Cabinet clash

Elaine Chao has already revealed that she’ll get paid for serving on three corporate boards as she moves back into the government as Donald Trump’s chosen transportation secretary. Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, hasn’t even had to publicly name his four children ahead of his confirmation hearing to become secretary of state.

Chalk up the discrepancy to the Senate’s arbitrary, committee-by-committee policies on what information about Cabinet picks they opt to disclose.

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The appointees are required by law to file financial disclosures that eventually become public. But it’s up to the specific Senate committee vetting each individual whether and when to share separate questionnaires they’re required to fill out. That form details their work experience, business holdings, and personal lives.

The varying standards could heighten already-simmering partisan tensions over the vast wealth and business entanglements of many Trump Cabinet picks. The top Democrats on 16 Senate panels insisted Thursday that no senior nominee should proceed to a committee vote without providing financial disclosures and ethics agreements, a signal of bitter fights to come as the minority tries to gain leverage against a GOP that can easily stock Trump’s Cabinet on party-line votes.

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Richard Painter, former chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush, warned that the patchwork approach to releasing nominees’ information adds risks for both sides in the confirmation process. Keeping details out of the public eye puts pressure on Democrats and their aides “to do a lot of homework, and they may or may not have time to do that,” he said.

“If minority members and staff members don’t spot it, then it goes under the radar screen,” added Painter, who recently became vice chair of the watchdog nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Democrats also urged the completion of FBI background checks for all Cabinet nominees and said Trump’s would-be advisers should have “satisfied reasonable requests for additional information.” Republicans, wary of a politically motivated slow-walking for Trump’s nominees, note that they sped through seven of President Barack Obama’s nominees on his first day in office — 13 of them without a recorded vote.

Much of the public scrutiny of Trump nominees’ records has focused on potential conflicts between their private assets and official responsibilities as future Cabinet members. Such fault lines are typically laid bare in the nine-part financial disclosures that nominees have to file to the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, along with an ethics agreement that discusses divestment or other personal moves they will make to avoid conflicts.

Democrats are prodding Rex Tillerson to go beyond the Senate Foreign Relations committee's requirements and share his tax returns.

Democrats are prodding Rex Tillerson to go beyond the Senate Foreign Relations committee’s requirements and share his tax returns. | Getty

OGE publicly releases those lengthy financial disclosures only after they are sent to the Senate, however, which must happen within five days after nominations are formally issued. The earliest ethics agreement for one of the seven nominees confirmed on Obama’s first inauguration day was filed on Dec. 22, 2008, and the latest on Jan. 8, 2009.

Depending on how quickly the Senate moves under a new president, Painter said, nominees could be confirmed before their financial disclosures are made public. And Republicans are planning a brisk pace — on par with the speedy process that Obama’s nominees enjoyed on his inauguration day.

“Even though there’s a lot going on that day, we hope to be able to vote on and confirm a number of the president’s selections for the cabinet so he can get started,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters last month.

When it comes to the separate committee questionnaires, disclosure rules are idiosyncratic — typically based on precedent rather than any overall guiding logic.

At one end of the spectrum, the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees already have released their separate nominee questionnaires for Chao and attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). At the other end, the Foreign Relations committee, abiding by routine practice, restricts Tillerson’s questionnaire to senators and aides.

The ExxonMobil CEO’s unreleased questionnaire is already stoking controversy. Democrats are prodding Tillerson to go beyond the committee’s requirements and share his tax returns — a step Trump refused to take during his campaign, breaking with decades of precedent.

Sen. Jeff Merkley called Donald Trump's campaign a "charade" and vowed to fight his cabinet nominations.

The Finance Committee requires tax returns to be shared confidentially as part of a famously rigorous vetting process that tripped up two of President Barack Obama’s first-term Cabinet choices: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader who ultimately withdrew his health secretary bid.

Questionnaires for Trump treasury secretary pick Steven Mnuchin and others under its jurisdiction are printed in the record of confirmation hearings, excluding their confidential financial data. That’s in accordance with longstanding committee practice.

The health, education, labor, and pensions committee, which will scrutinize Trump’s labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, provides copies of its general questionnaire upon request but does not release copies of a second financial questionnaire.

The agriculture committee’s rules provide for “public inspection” of its nominee questionnaires, excluding any data deemed confidential. The homeland security committee also publicly releases non-confidential information from its questionnaire during the confirmation process.

The energy committee published Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s nominee questionnaire at the time of his confirmation hearing. Other senior Obama nominees’ questionnaires, however, were not posted on the panel’s hearing websites. A spokeswoman for the committee was unable to comment further on its policies by publication time.

The budget committee posts its questionnaires after nomination hearings are done, with confidential information redacted, in addition to nominees’ replies to any separate policy questions the panel may ask. Copies of nominees’ OGE financial disclosure and ethics agreement are also available at that time in the committee clerk’s office for those who make an appointment.

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Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has erred on the side of full disclosure, creating a website on which nominees’ questionnaires and progress through the chamber are tracked as part of his “efforts to improve the transparency of the confirmation process.”

Confidential information is redacted before Thune’s panel releases the documents, but that doesn’t mean they’re devoid of relevant details. Chao’s questionnaire, posted Tuesday, states that she will receive deferred stock payments in cash upon departing from the boards of News Corporation, Ingersoll-Rand, and Vulcan Materials in order to join the Trump administration.

In addition, Chao’s document states that she is “entitled to discounted air fare on Delta Airlines as a result of her service on the board of Northwest Airlines.”

Several committees’ internal rules give Democrats tools to delay the confirmation process for Trump nominees if their standards for pre-vote scrutiny are not met. The finance panel, for one, does not schedule hearings until its bipartisan vetting is done.

“A common timing provision is a requirement that nominations be held for one or two weeks before the committee proceeds to a hearing or a vote, permitting Senators time to review a nomination before committee consideration.,” the Congressional Research Service reported last year.

An Armed Services committee spokesman did not return a request for comment on its approach to nominee questionnaires. The offices of incoming environment committee chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and incoming Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) declined to comment.

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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