WASHINGTON — It’s tough to do your job as the government’s chief internal ethical watchdog when you have no teeth.
That’s the lesson learned by Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub, who for the last six months has engaged in a futile effort to get White House officials to play by federal ethics rules. He submitted his resignation yesterday.
“(T)he current situation has made it clear that the ethics program needs to be stronger than it is,” Shaub told NPR yesterday of his decision to leave his post 18 months before his term expires to take position with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. There, he said, “I’ll have more freedom to push for reform.”
It’s hard to fault his reasoning. His office was created in the wake of Watergate to promote transparency and prevent and resolve conflicts of interest in the executive branch. But one thing Congress forgot to do is give the agency any enforcement powers, leaving it to serve more as an advisory board that does little more than make strong suggestions.
From Ivanka Trump’s business interests in China, to Jared Kushner’s refusal to divest completely of business interests, to the amorphously fluid financial relationship between the president’s businesses and the White House, the OGE has had absolutely no influence on Trump and his team. When Shuab recommended Trump aide Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for giving what she herself called “a free commercial” for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line during a television interview, Trump did nothing.
But sadly, it’s not clear Shaub will have any more power pushing Congress from the outside to reform the agency and boost its powers. After all, any reforms passed by Congress with less than a veto-proof majority will need Trump’s signature to become law.
In the meantime, the job of replacing Shaub rests with — you guessed it — the president. So for the foreseeable future, Trump — and any successor who follows his example — will have this ethical watchdog by the tail.