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Congress aims to overhaul presidential ethics rules with a plan led by an unlikely pair of lawmakers

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House on Wednesday would require presidents and vice presidents to publicly disclose tax returns before, during and after their time in the White House as Congress makes an election-year push to curb foreign influence in American politics.

The proposal, led by the unusual pairing of Republican Rep. James Comer and progressive Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, is the latest effort to bolster congressional oversight of presidential ethics as both parties grapple with congressional investigations into their leading candidates for the White House.

“We both agreed that this was going to be a bill about the future and about restoring trust in government,” Porter told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “It’s not a bill about any past president.”

Democrats on Tuesday introduced rival legislation that would enforce the Constitution’s ban on emoluments, which prohibits a president from accepting foreign gifts and money without the permission of Congress. Proponents of that proposal say Republican Donald Trump brazenly ignored the clause while president as foreign government officials flocked to his various hotels and properties.

The release of the dueling bills suggests bipartisan appetite in Congress for revising presidential ethics rules. But those proposals are intertwined with fiercely partisan fights about the conduct of Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden, and it remains to be seen whether any bill can make it through the House, let alone become law.

The White House said in a statement Wednesday that Biden has already complied with many of the provisions laid out in the legislation and “made clear his commitment to upholding strong ethical standards.”

The proposal from Comer, R-Ky., and Porter, D-Calif., is focused on greater transparency and requires the disclosure of foreign payments, gifts and loans made to officials' immediate family members. Presidents and vice presidents would be required to disclose when immediate family members accompany them on official travel and specify when they do so for official business purposes. The provisions are a direct response to concerns surrounding the business dealings of Trump's children and Biden's son.

The approaches by Trump and Biden to financial disclosures have been starkly different. Trump has persistently rejected efforts to share details about his financial history, counter to the practice of transparency followed by all his predecessors in the post-Watergate era. Biden has routinely released his annual returns.

Comer, chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, said the legislation would ensure “that moving forward, American presidents, vice presidents, and their family members cannot profit from their proximity to power.”

“Although we have not needed to develop a full-blown legislative machinery to enforce the Emoluments Clause for more than two centuries, Congress must now enact a law to prevent Presidents from ever again exploiting the presidency for self-enrichment by selling out our government to foreign states,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, said in a statement.

GOP lawmakers, led by Comer, have asserted for the past 17 months that the Biden family has traded on the president's name by trying to link a handful of phone calls or dinner meetings between Biden, when he was vice president or out of office, and his son Hunter and his business associates.

The committee has released records showing that from 2014 to 2019 several members of the Biden family have received more than $15 million in payments from foreign entities. Additionally, Republicans have criticized a series of loans Democratic donors have given to the president's family, including more than $6 million that entertainment attorney Kevin Morris has provided to Hunter Biden.

However, Republicans have not been able to produce evidence that shows Joe Biden was directly involved or benefited from his family’s businesses while in public office.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee released a report in January that found that Trump’s businesses received nearly $8 million from 20 foreign governments during his presidency.

It outlined how foreign governments and their entities poured millions into various Trump properties, including the Trump International Hotels in Washington and Las Vegas as well as two Trump properties in New York. The payees ranged from China to Saudi Arabia to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Government ethics lawyers condemned Trump’s decision to hold onto his vast business empire after taking office, saying the decision provided ample opportunity for people who want to influence U.S. policy to curry favor with the president.

Trump and his legal team asserted that critics have misinterpreted the emoluments clauses, saying that the framers of the Constitution did not intend for them to cover fair-value transactions between a business and its customers, such as offering a hotel room for the night for payment.

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