Political News

Warren promises to take populism to the White House in New York City speech

Posted September 16, 2019 7:00 a.m. EDT
Updated September 16, 2019 8:27 p.m. EDT

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren touted her sweeping new set of anti-corruption proposals at a rally Monday night in New York, where she spoke a short walk from the site of an infamous 1911 fire that set off a movement to regulate workplace safety standards

Addressing thousands of supporters in Washington Square Park, the Massachusetts Democrat connected the mix of populist rage and insider activist politicking that followed the deadly blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory -- and led to the passage of a raft of new labor laws -- to her broader vision for eradicating corruption in Washington.

Warren told the story through the lens of Frances Perkins, who led the charge for change in New York before going on to become President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's labor secretary -- the first woman to hold a Cabinet position -- and an author of the New Deal.

Perkins "used the same model that she and her friends had used after the Triangle Fire: She worked the political system relentlessly from the inside, while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside," Warren said Monday night. "As Frances Perkins put it, the Triangle fire was 'the day the New Deal was born.' "

Warren's push to combat public corruption by implementing stricter ethics laws has been the central theme of her presidential campaign. Underlying that argument has been a promise to work an inside-outside model of politics, connecting progressive activists with like-minded lawmakers.

Her message got a boost ahead of the speech with introductions from Democratic New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell, whose group had endorsed Warren earlier in the day.

In a rare round of prepared remarks, Warren channeled the women-led organizing that followed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire -- a story, she said, "about power," its abuses and organized opposition -- to make a modern case for undertaking radical anti-corruption measures in Washington.

"Climate change. Gun safety. Health care. On the face of it, these three are totally different issues. But despite our being the strongest and wealthiest country in the history of the world, our democracy is paralyzed," Warren said. "And why? Because giant corporations have bought off our government."

The measures she unveiled earlier Monday, Warren argued, would go a long way in breaking that grip. She proposed banning federal lawmakers and their senior staff from serving on corporate boards and requiring every new member of Congress to make public any potential financial conflicts before they take office. Corporate lobbyists would have to wait six years before becoming eligible for government jobs, and a range of other powerful officials -- from the president to federal judges and Cabinet secretaries -- would be permanently disqualified from working as lobbyists after leaving office.

Warren's remarks in New York were the first she's delivered off a teleprompter since her campaign kickoff in Lawrence, Massachusetts, earlier this year. They also picked up a similar theme: an urgent call to action using the story of activism driven by women, in that case the "Bread and Roses" textile workers' strike of 1912.

"We're not here today because of famous arches or famous men. In fact, we're not here because of men at all," Warren said Monday. "We're here because of some hardworking women," she added, before telling, in vivid detail, the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster.

This latest round of proposals builds on an already extensive set of suggested overhauls to how the government regulates big corporations and itself. In both the new rollout and her speech, Warren argues that without tightening anti-corruption laws and tying down big money interests, the policies favored by most progressives are doomed to defeat in Washington.

To untie that knot, she would impose a slate of new rules designed to "end lobbying as we know it" by creating a broader definition of the kinds of activities that would fall under the title. And in a specific reference to the work done by 2016 Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, Warren proposes banning private lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.

Her plan calls for limiting lobbyists' influence on domestic elections by forbidding them from making political contributions, acting as "bundlers" -- or helping to pool other people's donations -- and hosting fundraisers for candidates. The industry more generally would also be governed by new regulations on the amount it can spend to influence elected officials, and be forced to pay a tax on annual expenditures over $500,000.

"Allowing individuals who are paid to influence government officials on policy to also give gifts or funnel money to the political campaigns of those same officials sounds like legalized bribery," Warren wrote in a Medium post.

On the government side, she wants to establish a federal "Office of the Public Advocate," which she said in her post would engage the public in a more substantial way when regulatory rules are being negotiated or become subject to change.

Additionally, Warren is pushing for new mechanisms to enforce ethics rules -- and punish violations -- by creating what she's calling the "US Office of Public Integrity," which would be empowered to investigate potential ethical breaches by government officials.

In her Medium post, she connected the need for more robust enforcement back to the Trump White House's habit of ignoring watchdog warnings and recommendations.

"When Secretary Ben Carson was warned about his son participating in fancy government events, he brushed it off," Warren writes. "And when an independent federal ethics watchdog determined that Kellyanne Conway should be fired for repeatedly violating federal law, the administration barely cared."

In her speech, Warren described their boss, President Donald Trump, as "corruption in the flesh." In her post, she also took aim at another Trump: retired federal appellate Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, whose departure from the bench ended an investigation into whether she had broken judicial conduct rules by committing tax fraud.

"Under my plan," Warren wrote, "investigations will remain open until their findings are made public and any penalties for misconduct are issued."

This latest Warren plan, one of her most in-depth to date, would also seek to change the definition of what constitutes an "official act" when it comes to law enforcement dealings with potential or suspected pay-to-play schemes.

Warren called the Supreme Court ruling in McDonnell v. United States -- which overturned the conviction of Republican former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges -- "wrong-headed," and pledged to seek legislation sharpening the rules. The precedent set by the decision has made it more difficult for prosecutors to prove similar allegations in court.

Warren's proposal would again seek to impose a more comprehensive standard for what could be considered bribery of elected officials -- and eliminate what she calls a "tractor-sized loophole" in the law.

The result, she wrote, would be to ensure "that corrupt politicians who accept bribes can be prosecuted. It also clarifies that a stream of benefits -- rather than a single act -- qualifies as an unlawful benefit paid in exchange for a bribe."