A popular leader whose words are followed closely by millions of American voters just unveiled a political platform out there in left field with Bernie and AOC: Universal basic income, a shorter work day, a Big Tech crackdown on hate speech, curbs on the global arms trade and deep cuts in pollution. Unfortunately for Democrats, Pope Francis is constitutionally barred from seeking the White House.

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Top ethics experts are ‘stunned’ by Joe Manchin’s conflict of interest

America has learned a lot in 2021 about West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and the things he doesn’t like, as he positions himself as “the decider” on what legislation can or can’t through the Congress. He’s not a big fan of what he calls “the entitlement society” — apparently any government action that benefits working folks instead of those who float on or near the senator’s luxury houseboat — or anyone bad-mouthing fossil fuels. But what the most conservative Democrat on Capitol Hill really hates is people asking him about his money.

In late September, Manchin snapped at a Bloomberg reporter, Ari Natter, who asked about the annual dividend checks the lawmaker still collects from a coal company now run by his son. “I’ve been in a blind trust for 20 years,” Manchin insisted. “I have no idea what they’re doing.” When Natter continued to press about the millions Manchin has received from Enersystems, Manchin angrily asked, “You got a problem?” and when Natter asked another question, “You’d do best to change the subject.”

Let’s not, shall we? In fact, let’s make Manchin and the conflict of interest that now threatens Planet Earth the main subject of today’s newsletter.

After all, it was less than three weeks later that word leaked on Capitol Hill that Manchin — knowing that President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda can’t pass the 50-50 Senate without his support — is successfully blocking the critical $150 billion component to help utilities replace dirty fossil fuels, including coal, with clean energy. Experts say that without the program, the lynchpin of the White House climate strategy, the United States won’t meet scientists’ timeline for reversing global warming.

So, yeah, we do have a problem, Senator Manchin. And part of the problem is this: When the senator says that his not-insignificant fortune is in a “blind trust” — his robotic response, for more than a decade — he’s technically not lying. But Manchin’s wealth isn’t in a blind trust in the sense that most people would understand that term. The senator knows that coal dollars are floating his boat. Like much of what passes for ethics in Congress, the whole thing is a farce. As any hardened investigative reporter would tell you, the corruption of Joe Manchin is the worst kind — the legal kind.

“It’s a misnomer — these are not ‘blind trusts’ whatsoever,” Craig Holman, the Capitol Hill lobbyist on ethics and related matters for the good-government group Public Citizen, told me on Monday. He added that “Manchin is one walking conflict of interest.”

There are several loopholes that a senator could steer a houseboat through. For one thing, despite Manchin’s sanctimonious answer, his money is not in a traditional blind trust in which all assets are liquidated and a manager invests the proceeds without the beneficiary knowing what stocks or funds that they’re buying. As Holman explained, members of Congress hold “qualified blind trusts” in order to comply with other financial disclosure rules — so while an outside manager might be making investment decisions, a lawmaker often knows where his money sits.

» READ MORE: Joe Manchin beats his chest for D.C. elites while struggling W. Va. waits for help | Will Bunch

It seems an assault on the English language to call Manchin’s coal stake “a blind trust” — especially when the nation’s most prominent newspaper, the New York Times, reported in 2011 “Sen. Manchin Maintains Lucrative Ties to Family-Owned Coal Company.” Presumably Manchin noticed the name Enersystems or a second coal company, Farmington Resources, as he cashed their checks for $4.5 million since getting elected to the Senate.

And yet Senate rules have held over the years that lawmakers can not only retain their investments but don’t have to recuse themselves from votes broadly affecting that industry — only from very narrow legislation that would only affect their specific company (such as a federal contract specifically for Enersystems). The rationale is that a senator like Manchin should be able to vote on coal legislation since he represents mine owners and their employees back in West Virginia, but the sizable amount of Manchin’s income raises questions.

Virginia Canter, who was White House ethics counsel for presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton before becoming chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, repeatedly used the word “stunning” when describing Manchin’s conflict of interest, noting that his coal income — a reported $491,949 in 2020 — is nearly triple his Senate salary of $174,000.

Canter said she fears that because of his blatant conflict, Manchin “may not be able to see the forest for the trees and see what’s in the best interest of his constituents, because the dollar signs have blinded him.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. But currently Congress is such an ethical quagmire that the legislation seen as having the best chance of passing — like the Ban Conflicted Trading Act, to prevent members and their staff from selling individual stocks while in office — is the lower hanging fruit. A bill backed by the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, that would address the Manchin problem head on — by requiring elected representatives to liquidate their holdings into actual blind trusts or index funds — is seen as having little support.

It’s something of a cliché to say that the Founders who drafted the Constitution here in Philadelphia didn’t anticipate this or that, but, seriously, could James Madison or Alexander Hamilton ever have dreamed that humankind’s industrial pollution would cause droughts, wildfires, or floods, or that one U.S. senator with a “stunning” conflict of interest could block any legislation to save civilization from that problem? Serving as a U.S. senator is a privilege, not a right. Anyone seeking the job must be required to sacrifice a bit of their (financial) independence — to guarantee that their greed won’t threaten your independence, or mine.

Yo, do this

  • Brian Eno said, most famously, that only about 5,000 people bought the first LP from The Velvet Underground — the avant-garde 1960s’ Manhattan rock band godfathered by Andy Warhol and fronted by Lou Reed — but that every one of them went out and started a band. Which makes it weird that the band never got a documentary worthy of their legend ... until now, streaming on Apple TV+. Acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes shuns the predictable MTV “Behind the Music” framing to instead tell The Velvet Underground story in the trippy, Warhol-like pop art style from which these rock and roll icons were spawned.

  • As anyone who’s followed the last few years of climate protests — particularly the 2016 fight against the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation — knows, the moral power of Indigenous culture and politics is thriving in modern America. Which makes it hard to explain why the public’s fascination with the Native American story tends to fall off after the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, and the end of America’s frontier days. In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, writer David Treuer fills in the gaps in the saga so deeply threaded through our national narrative, such as the American Indian Movement of the 1970s.

Ask me anything

Question: Why does Pennsylvania stagger its elections for AG and governor? — Via Ira Goldman (@KDbyProxy) on Twitter

Answer: I can’t tell you exactly what Pennsylvania’s Founders (and the subsequent tinkerers, such as those who, in 1968, began to allow two terms for governor instead of one) were thinking. But staggered elections are one of the best features in the Keystone State’s mixed bag of modern democracy. The ballot mix — including state Supreme Court justices and big-city mayors in so-called “off-year” elections, and statewide row offices separated from the gubernatorial race — has the laudable goal of encouraging citizens to stay engaged with annual voting. As for governor and attorney general, staggered races has meant the two officials are often (although not currently) from separate parties, or at least not ticket-mates. This promotes independence, which is always a good thing.

Backstory

In a week where most of the American political chatter centered on the fate of President Biden’s economic agenda or the extreme radicalization of the Republican Party, the biggest story of the 21st Century may have flown under the radar. I mean, literally. I’m talking about the Financial Times report that China caught U.S. intelligence and the rest of the world off-guard by testing a hypersonic missile that is capable of carrying nuclear weapons and would be more difficult for Beijing’s would-be adversaries to intercept. (China denied the test, as one does.) It’s no secret that China has ratcheted up its worst evil-world-domination tendencies, from Uighur concentration camps to crushing democracy in Hong Kong. But the scariest part is the Xi regime’s aggressive posture toward Taiwan, the densely populated island survivor of China’s 1949 political partition that the United States has, to quote Bruce Springsteen, a vow to defend.

» READ MORE: Does ‘Never Again!’ mean anything if we do nothing about China’s concentration camps? | Will Bunch

As a child of the baby boom born in 1959, I arrived just 41 years after the end of World War I and 14 years after World War II. I grew up assuming there was a darn good chance I’d see World War III in my lifetime. Instead, the accumulated decades of avoided global conflict have brought complacency ... perhaps too much? The rising authoritarianism and middle-class angst of the 1930s flowed into World War II, so how should we reconcile the similar developments of the 2010s and ‘20s? History isn’t always fated to repeat, though. Global trade, for all its flaws, provides the Biden administration and our allies with ways to pressure Beijing economically before the first bomb, hypersonic or otherwise, drops. Similar to Europe in 1939, China’s bad behavior can’t be ignored. But at the end of the day, avoiding World War III at any cost needs to trump the foolishness of macho superpower posturing.

Inquirer reading list

  • The protests after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis were nothing like the world has seen before, with estimates that as many as 17 million to 26 million people joined marches. And yet 17 months later, the changes wrought by those rallies haven’t measured up. There have been scattered local reforms, but the federal bill collapsed and we’re seeing a trend toward spending more on traditional policing, not less. In my Sunday column, I asked if the marches were too white, too educated, and too transient to bring real change.

  • The growing vibe surrounding 2021 is that the sense of hope that launched with President Biden’s inauguration is dissipating. That’s in part because of the growing extremism of a Donald Trump cult on the right, and in part because the corruption of key Democrats is thwarting Washington from changing those bad dynamics. Over the weekend, I urged those who were energized during Trump’s presidency to get back at it, in the off-year voting booth and in the streets, if need be.

  • The Inquirer’s tireless Samantha Melamed, who covers criminal injustice in a city overflowing with it, is one of the best beat reporters in America. Last week, she paid homage either to Donald Trump’s ice cream addiction or those old Raisin Bran commercials — with two scoops. Her shocking expose of the violence, uprisings, and dangerous conditions in the Philadelphia jails dropped at roughly the same time as a longer investigative report on the city’s wrongful-murder-conviction racket of the 1990s, and the new allegations of perjury against the detectives who perpetrated it. In the 21st Century, this old-fashioned kind of accountability journalism can only survive if readers like you will support it. Please consider subscribing to The Inquirer today.