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Democrats’ newest midterm pitch: A crackdown on corruption

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 5/21/2018 Mike DeBonis
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer are posing for a picture © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

Democrats are preparing to highlight allegations of corruption surrounding the Trump administration — and a legislative agenda to prevent future abuses — as they continue rolling out their party platform ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The first planks of the “A Better Deal” platform, released last year, focused on the party’s economic agenda. Now, with questions about pay-to-play politics swirling around President Trump and his current and former aides, Democrats are set to introduce anti-corruption proposals Monday billed as “A Better Deal for Our Democracy.”

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According to a senior Democratic official familiar with the announcement, the new agenda will include proposals that would eliminate loopholes that allow lobbyists and lawmakers to buy and sell influence without the public’s knowledge. The message: Elect Democrats in November to “clean up the chaos and corruption in Washington.”

One proposal — which would tighten the federal laws governing lobbying disclosures and foreign-agent registration — responds to the apparent sale of influence by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer. According to recently disclosed financial records, Cohen earned millions of dollars from companies that wanted to secure access to Trump’s inner circle in the early days after his 2016 win.

But Cohen never registered as a lobbyist or otherwise disclosed the payments — possibly because, under federal law, only those who spend more than 20 percent of their time on lobbying on behalf of a client must register as a lobbyist. Democrats will propose to change the law so any lobbying contact would have to be publicly reported.

Another proposal could rewrite federal statutes that might have allowed lawmakers of both parties to skirt convictions on bribery and pay-to-play allegations — including former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and  Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). All were charged with fraud violations but were then acquitted or had their convictions overturned after courts found that their actions were not criminal under the current letter of federal law.

“This administration is failing to police itself, to set moral standards, to clean up its messes, to shun corrupt behavior, and to drain the swamp,” the Democratic official said. “It’s the American people who are getting stuck with a raw deal. That has to change.”

The proposals are set to be rolled out Monday afternoon on Capitol Hill with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and several other congressional Democrats who have been engaged in anti-corruption issues, including Rep. John Sarbanes (Md.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).

The new Democratic focus on corruption as a campaign message marks a return to a formula that helped put Democrats into the House majority in the 2006 midterm elections — after numerous scandals including the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham revelations put pay-to-play politics on the public’s political radar in a big way. Polling done after the election showed that the tide of corruption helped swing votes to Democrats, and the party’s official now sees signs of similar concerns among voters.

Democrats, the official said, will make the case that they are best equipped to rein in what they are calling “the most corrupt administration in modern times” and are prepared to connect the corruption allegations to a Republican governing agenda that has delivered outsize tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and dismantled financial and environmental regulations that aimed to protect average taxpayers.

Democrats are also preparing to highlight an apparent atmosphere of rule-bending, if not rule-breaking, in the Trump administration. Several Trump Cabinet members — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, as well as former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price and former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin — have been subject to official investigations of questionable spending on travel and other expenses.

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