WASHINGTON ― Republicans on the House Oversight Committee unanimously voted against an amendment offered by Democrats to the committee’s rules to prohibit the committee from approving any legislation that could directly benefit President Donald Trump and the many businesses he owns.
This was the first time any member of Congress has had to vote on the record on whether they endorse the president’s decision to forgo divesting his ownership stake in any business holdings that could present a conflict. While the ethics law requiring divestment for cabinet secretaries does not apply to the president, every president in the modern era has acted as though it does and divested from any potentially conflicting holdings.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, offered the amendment to “remove the question” of whether any committee actions could be construed as benefiting the president’s bottom line. Trump resigned from management positions at his companies, but did not divest his ownership stake. He will financially benefit from any profits his companies make while he occupies the White House.
“[I]t falls to us in the Congress to do our job and ensure that these conflicts are thoroughly reviewed and addressed,” Cummings said during the committee’s first hearing of the new Congress. “Passing this amendment is an important first step in showing that we value the integrity of our own committee.”
Cummings’ sentiment toward protecting the committee was not felt by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman.
“This is clearly a gotcha amendment,” Chaffetz said. “While it’s cute in its creativity, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the rules package and I would stand in opposition and would hope and urge members to vote no.”
A number of committee Democrats voiced their support for the amendment, but no Republican other than Chaffetz spoke out. The amendment died in a party-line voice vote, with all Republicans voting against it and all Democrats supporting.
Chaffetz has repeatedly rebuffed requests by Cummings to hold hearings on the president’s business conflicts. Oversight is not necessary, Chaffetz argues, because ethics laws don’t apply to the president. He has also promised not to go on a “fishing expedition” into Trump’s business holdings.
Democrats in the House Appropriations Committee also offered an ethics-related amendment to the committee’s rules on Tuesday. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the committee, presented an amendment requiring cabinet secretaries and agency heads to affirm that they are in full compliance with the ethics agreement they signed with the Office of Government Ethics prior to appearing before the committee.
The idea behind this amendment to the committee’s rules came after some of Trump’s nominees went into their confirmation process in the Senate without fully completing their ethics process with OGE. Lowey said she wanted to ensure their conflicts of interest were cleared up before they came to testify before the committee.
“The amendment simply asks them to certify they have divested the stocks or completed whatever else they promise to do to be cleared of conflict of interest charges – or explain why not – before they give testimony to the committee,” Lowey said during the hearing.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the committee’s chairman, said, “I don’t think this is the right place to adjudicate these issues,” and urged a no vote.
The bill went down on a party-line vote, with all Republicans voting no and all Democrats voting yes. Just like in the oversight committee, no Republicans aside from the chairman rose to speak to explain their votes.