President-Elect Donald Trump has assembled what may be the wealthiest array of Cabinet nominees in U.S. history, with some of the most complex finances and vast potential for conflicts of interest. That is all the more reason to proceed cautiously and ensure that each nominee is properly vetted.
The push to jam confirmation hearings through before that process has taken place is misguided, and Republicans would do well to follow the rules that then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out in 2009, at the outset of the Obama administration.
Back then McConnell insisted that each Cabinet nominee complete financial disclosures, ethics forms and other information requests in enough time for the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to review the material for possible conflicts and send on a report in advance of confirmation hearings. That was responsible governance in 2009, and it still is. But when Senate Democrats voiced concern about an OGE report that said some Trump nominees were being scheduled for hearings before being vetted, Majority Leader McConnell's response was a terse, "Grow up." That's not only petty and dismissive, it further erodes the trust that all Americans should be able to place in those charged with forming a new administration.
Now more than ever, a divided nation must be assured that the rules are impartial and applied equally no matter which party holds power. That's not a concession to minority Democrats. Trump needs this more than anyone. The man who won despite failing to provide the information required of most of his subordinates, who pledged to "drain the swamp," has a special obligation to assure the people that his Cabinet picks are free of conflicts.
Senate Republicans may have thought Americans didn't care about the mundane scheduling of confirmation hearings. They have found out differently in recent days and have already opted to push back a couple of hearings — most importantly those for Betsy DeVoss, nominee to be education secretary, and Ben Carson, chosen to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Trump spokespeople have said, rather artfully, that most nominees have completed their paperwork. But that's not the whole story. It's only after that paperwork is done that ethics officials from OGE and the agency the nominee is to join can review it for potential conflicts of interest. Richard W. Painter, former ethics counsel to President George W. Bush and a professor at the University of Minnesota, has outlined the process, noting that if conflicts are found, the nominee must propose — in writing — a resolution. If a conflict is unresolvable, that's included in the report sent to the confirmation committee. Such information should be vital to senators charged with the final vetting of a nominee.
Painter, who supported Hillary Clinton in the campaign, has noted that completing the ethics review process before the hearing not only "ensures that all parties have a detailed understanding of the nominee's commitments before taking office," it also "mitigates the opportunity for undue influence on the independent ethics review." Once the nominee has completed the gantlet of confirmation hearings, the chance for a vigorous review would likely dim.
The first major test of any president is assembling his Cabinet and the thousands of appointments that make up his administration. Trump is off to a shaky start, and the Senate should not make it worse by bending the rules designed to produce solid candidates for important jobs.