After a year of blatant ethics violations, Congress must reform corruption laws

It’s too easy for executive branch officials to abuse their office and use taxpayer funds to further their political careers. That much is clear from a report from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) last week outlining a series of ethics law violations under the Trump administration.

It’s a reminder to voters just how easy it is for federal officials to get away with blatant corruption, and the latest violations will only deepen their distrust in government.

The office found that at least 13 Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act, a law established to protect democracy by prohibiting government officials from misusing their platforms as government officials to influence elections. But these officials didn’t face any consequences for flouting the law — sometimes knowing that their actions would violate ethics rules.

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The report issued by the OSC paints a bleak picture of the Hatch Act violations under the Trump administration. "This failure to impose discipline created the conditions for what appeared to be a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch,” the report states.

As the OSC noted in its report, then-White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump Jan. 6 committee asks Ivanka Trump to sit for interview The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE said in a media interview that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about Hatch Act violations.

But this simply isn’t true. The American people are greatly concerned with corruption in government. In fact, a survey of voters in the battleground states of Michigan and Ohio sponsored by the Project On Government Oversight found that voters rank government corruption as a top concern. The sense that their leaders are using their government positions to advance political activities, rather than to serve the American public, contributes to significant distrust in government. This is especially true if they never face consequences for their misdeeds.

And yet leaders in Congress have done little to address the weaknesses in our ethics laws laid bare under the Trump administration. Political coercion will not fix itself with the election of new leaders. Policymakers need to act, and the recent OSC report should serve as a painful reminder that anti-corruption laws need an overhaul.

While it was a step in the right direction for OSC to release the findings of its investigations — typically the office drops Hatch Act probes once an individual leaves their government post — the office was unable to address violations while the individuals were still in government.

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OSC has the authority to fine and otherwise reprimand career government officials, but lacks the power to fine presidential appointees for illegally using their official positions to advance campaign goals. So certain officials appointed by the president benefit from a loophole in the law, leaving OSC with little power to address their Hatch Act violations.

Historically, the federal government relied on the president to address Hatch Act violations by these appointees. Yet because President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy  Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE was unwilling to reprimand his appointees, several officials in the last administration were able to violate the Hatch Act without fear of consequences and with great risk of taxpayer money supporting campaign and party activities.

This key anti-corruption law essentially creates a two-tiered system in which some officials face consequences for violating the law and others do not. 

And such a system is clearly unsustainable. Congress should make it a priority to strengthen the OSC’s power to enforce the Hatch Act. Policymakers must also institute a better system for collecting fines and allow for larger fines. 

The public clearly doesn’t want their leaders to campaign on the public’s tab. There must be a better way to deter this kind of behavior before it happens since it will never be possible to claw back the taxpayer funds misused by those officials in this way.

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The Office of Special Counsel needs to step up its game on its own, as well.

Last year, Americans watched as the Republican Party broadcast key portions of its national convention from the White House, egregiously blurring the line between politics and nonpartisan democratic pillars. The OSC was aware of these plans, allowed it to happen and waited more than a year to issue a report on its findings.

In the report, for example, OSC reveals that it repeatedly warned the White House and the Department of Homeland Security not to allow acting Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfCawthorn 'likely' violated rules by bringing candidate on House floor After a year of blatant ethics violations, Congress must reform corruption laws Jan. 6 committee subpoenas Stephen Miller, Kayleigh McEnany MORE to record a naturalization service for the RNC; however, OSC, which issued a statement defending the White House’s decision to host the RNC, said nothing when Wolf publicly denied that there was anything unusual about the ceremony. Even with restrictions in the law, the OSC must do everything in its power to hold executive branch officials accountable when they violate the law.

 The lack of consequences for Hatch Act violations should greatly alarm the American people and Congress. We’ve already seen several violations or near-violations under the Biden administration, and Congress must act swiftly to strengthen this anti-corruption law.

Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight.