Several members of the Trump cabinet are under scrutiny for alleged ethics violations after reports of using taxpayer dollars for personal travel or spending huge sums of money on office furniture, and a government waste watchdog says much clearer ethics rules would make a huge difference.
Several Trump administration cabinet officials have raised eyebrows. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned last year after reports of using taxpayer dollars to take private flights to various events. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin are under fire for questionable travel expenses. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Housing Secretary Ben Carson are facing questions about lavish spending on office decor.
So do stories like these suggest the cabinet secretaries have a stunning disregard for taxpayer dollars or is it the result of a labyrinth of confusing ethics rules that leave these officials wondering what can be charged to the government and what can’t?
Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz says these stories make for good political fodder but there’s more than meets the eye.
“Taxpayer-funded travel has always been an easy target for both sides to try to score political points. The problem is no one knows what prior administrations did , how they spent the money, (and) what the budget amount might be for the various activities,” said Schatz.
“It’s easy to point out a few trips here or there that might look like something’s wrong. But again, no one knows what the prior secretaries did. There’s no way to know whether any of this may be within the rules, which also differ – not just between different administrations but even among agencies,” said Schatz.
And how is it that one administration has no idea what rules the previous one enacted?
“All of this information is really inaccessible. There’s no searchable database to find out how often federal officials use taxpayer-funded travel, how much it costs, whether it’s necessary, whether it’s done on military aircraft or private planes. It’s confusing. It’s disorganized,” said Schatz.
And while Congress is not at the centerpiece of the recent stories, Schatz says that’s where responsibility ultimate lies for establishing a clear set of rules.
“Congress is ultimately at fault for how much money is being spent because they approve the budget. This recent budget deal increases spending 14 percent. We continue to suggest that Congress find ways to cut spending, to offset these increases if it’s that critical to increase defense spending and non-defense spending,” said Schatz.
Members of Congress seems to have a better handle on what their ethics rules are but Schatz says there’s still way too much wiggle room.
“There is nothing that shows the list of congressional travel. There is no committee vote. There is no transparency about what the legislators are supposed to accomplish.
“One thing that did occur over the years is they stopped taking spouses and staff to the Paris Air Show, but why are they going at all as members? What happens with the results of these trips? What’s the legislative activity that follows?” asked Schatz.
Schatz is doing more than complaining about the lack of transparency. He and National Taxpayers Union President Pete Sepp launched an effort to bring clarity to the process following the Price resignation last year.
“We asked taxpayers to sign an online petition to demand detailed transparency on who was traveling, the mode of transportation, who is traveling with the public official, the purpose of the trip, the compilation of an annual report – including the cost associated with military aircraft and personnel – and then put it on one website that covers all federal agencies so that everyone can see what is going on.
“Then it might be more sensible to say, this individual or that individual or this agency or that agency is or is not doing something that violates the rules. And I think uniform rules would also be very helpful,” said Schatz.
But will Congress actually address any of this?
“It would be nice if this happened, but like everything else in Washington, it’s just inertia, whether it’s the bureaucracy or whether it’s Congress itself after the issues with Sec. Price.
“They talked about having Chief of Staff John Kelly sign off on cabinet-level travel, but that still doesn’t address the inconsistent and fragmented reporting of travel rules and the exact costs that are associated with the travel. That still probably wouldn’t be available,” said Schatz.