Money & Politics

Three Men in a Room: The DC Edition

Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have the power to charge full speed ahead toward enacting their agenda. Will they pause for ethics concerns?

Three Men in a Room: The DC Edition

President-elect Donald Trump leaves a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), at right, at the US Capitol November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at The Brennan Center for Justice.

For years, New York’s dysfunctional state government has been derisively called “Three Men in a Room.” The three men were the governor, the New York State Senate majority leader and the New York State Assembly speaker. The three have nearly unparalleled control of New York’s government. But as corrupt as Albany has been, the governor never offered a job to the speaker’s or majority leader’s wives.

Now it looks like the country will have “Three Men in a Room” on a national scale. Starting in January, the three men will be President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the room is oval shaped. And two of the three are already off to a debauched start.

As all three are Republicans, if they can agree on a legislative agenda, then federal laws could change quite rapidly as they pass the House and the Senate and are signed by the new president.

Instead of avoiding the conflict of interest, McConnell is thumbing his nose at ethics.

Plenty of ink has been spilled on President-Elect Trump’s many potential conflicts of interest because of his far-flung business interests, which range from a hotel around the corner from the White House to a 57-story tower in Manila. These problems include possible violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause if foreign governments give him gifts or benefits.

Trump has tweeted that “legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations.” But that could just mean he’s turning over day-to-day control of the Trump organization to his children, which doesn’t resolve the conflict of interest. Time will tell whether he will completely divest his holdings and place them in a blind trust. But so far, it doesn’t look like Trump will be the moral leader among these three men.

Much less time has been spent at looking at the ethical profile of Sen. Mitch McConnell. Let’s take a peek.

McConnell is married to Elaine Chao, whom Trump has picked to be his Secretary of Transportation. She was formerly Secretary of Labor under the second President Bush — serving as the umpteenth example that Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in DC was just empty rhetoric.

Being Secretary of Transportation might usually be thought of as a bit of Washington backwater. But given Trump’s campaign promises about building massive infrastructure (bigly of course), some of the fattest government contracts could well be running through the DOT to update airports, build bridges and pave thousands of miles of highways. And that would place a Secretary Chao as a key gatekeeper for massive government expenditures.

Because Secretary of Transportation is a Cabinet-level post, Chao will need Senate confirmation. McConnell has already said he has no intention of recusing himself from his wife’s confirmation. Since there is a Republican majority in the Senate, it is likely Chao can easily win approval without McConnell’s vote. But instead of avoiding the conflict of interest, McConnell is thumbing his nose at ethics.

McConnell’s ethical compass also looks broken when it comes to campaign finance. Last year, he added a rider to the federal budget which blocked the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from finalizing a dark-money rule. The proposed rule would prevent publicly traded companies from spending secretly in American elections. The SEC has received over 1 million public comments encouraging the Commission to make a dark-money rule so investors know which companies are spending in politics. But the McConnell budget rider prevented the SEC from acting last year.

So has McConnell’s ethical compass returned to true north this year? Surprise, surprise: The answer is no. During the current lame duck Congress before Trump assumes office, McConnell is back with more campaign finance riders on the federal budget, including the SEC dark-money rider, thereby making the world safe for anonymous political spending by the largest corporations on Earth.

None of this bodes well for an honorable next four years of one party rule in Washington. Let’s hope Speaker Ryan’s not-so-secret aspirations for the presidency place him on a path toward the moral high ground, and that he stands up to the other two men when he confers with them in the Oval Office.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Brennan Center Fellow and a professor at Stetson University College of Law, is the author of Corporate Citizen? and Safeguarding Markets from Pernicious Pay to Play: A Model Explaining Why the SEC Regulates Money in Politics. She's a former board member of the National Institute of Money in State Politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ProfCiara.