August 05, 2019

Warren, Carper Provisions to Bolster Presidential Transition Team Ethics Requirements Pass Senate

Legislation to increase accountability and transparency during presidential transitions now heads to the House of Representatives

WASHINGTON, DC - Last week, the United States Senate passed a key provision of the Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act introduced by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) to enhance the ethics requirements that govern presidential transitions. The provisions of the Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act passed the Senate last week as part of the bipartisan Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019, a bill that includes a number of additional improvements to the presidential transition process.   

Senators Warren and Carper, along with House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), reintroduced the Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act earlier this year to strengthen government ethics and public integrity during transitions from one presidential administration to the next. The bicameral bill was included in the For the People Act of 2019 (H.R.1), House Democrats' first piece of legislation introduced in the 116th Congress that includes proposals related to voting and election laws, campaign finance, redistricting, and executive branch ethics requirements. It was also included in Senator Warren's Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, the most sweeping anti-corruption legislation since Watergate. 

The federal government provides presidential transition teams with financial support and access to executive agencies, non-public documents, and other resources. Despite their public support and level of access, transition team members are not required to comply with federal ethics laws, including those regarding conflicts of interest, because they are not categorized as federal government employees.

Although recent presidents-elect have adopted ethics plans, the law does not require it. The provisions of the Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act that passed the Senate last week would:

  • Require eligible presidential candidates to develop and release transition team ethics plans before the election and disclose how they will address their own conflicts of interest if elected president;
  • Require transition team members to sign an ethics-specific code of conduct and prohibit transition team members from working on matters that affect their financial interests; and 
  • Establish a set of minimum requirements for transition team ethics plans, including a requirement that candidates develop an enforcement mechanism for their code of conduct.

"For me, this comes down to one central question: who does this government work for? Is it going to continue to work for a thinner and thinner slice at the top, or are we going to make this government work for the rest of America?" said Senator Warren. "My legislation with Senator Carper and Chairman Cummings, the bulk of which recently passed the Senate, puts the focus of presidential transition teams on the needs of the American people - where it should be - instead of on the wealthy and well-connected."

"It is just common sense that the individuals running for the highest office in our land should be required to address any ethical issues before they take the oath of office. That's not a partisan issue; it's a good government policy that is necessary for a healthy democracy," said Senator Carper. "Regardless of their political party, presidential candidates and their transition teams should disclose how they will address their own conflicts of interest before the election and develop an ethics plan that the American people are able to see and evaluate. Along with my colleagues in the House and Senate, I will keep pushing to provide more accountability and transparency in presidential transitions by helping new administrations address potential conflicts of interest, improve the vetting process for nominees and preserve the integrity of our executive branch. I'm pleased that this legislation will now head to Chairman Cummings' committee in the House."

In November 2016, as President Trump prepared to take office, Senator Warren and Chairman Cummings requested a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of the chaotic Trump transition. GAO released the investigation in September 2017, finding that the Trump transition team ignored advice from the Office of Government Ethics and failed to follow past precedents regarding ethics and presidential transitions. GAO's review found that the Trump transition team did not develop an enforcement mechanism for its ethics code-leading to numerous reports of transition team members not signing or complying with the ethics policies.