Just days after reports that Trump White House officials had spent more than double the federal per diem on nights at Trump Organization-owned hotels, three Democratic senators unveiled a bill to deter agencies from spending taxpayer dollars to benefit the president’s business empire.
The Heightened Oversight of Travel, Eating, and Lodging (HOTEL) Act (S. 1832), was introduced on Tuesday by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., with co-sponsors Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Tom Udall, D-N.M. It would prohibit executive branch employee travel expenses paid by tax dollars from being spent at properties owned by the president, vice president, Cabinet secretaries or their family members.
The bill was drafted after The Washington Post’s coverage of White House National Security Council travel receipts obtained under the Freedom of Information by the watchdog group Property of the People.
“Executive branch officials like the president and Cabinet secretaries should not have a profit motive in the travel decisions made by the federal employees under their supervision,” said Peters, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight, in a Tuesday release. “This commonsense bill promotes good governance by ensuring that tax dollars are being used efficiently and that federal employees are not subject to undue pressure to patronize businesses owned by their top-level managers.”
Added Udall: “Every time the president plans a lavish trip to one of his private clubs, and every time an executive branch employee pays for a room with taxpayer dollars at a Trump property, President Trump stands to profit. The HOTEL Act is critical to making sure that taxpayer money isn’t being spent to pad any government official’s bottom line.”
The legislation was referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Expenditures related to the protective missions of the United States Secret Service and other agencies would be exempt from the bill’s requirements, though these agencies’ filings under the bill would be subject to tighter scrutiny by the Office of Government Ethics.
On the House side, a similar bill was introduced in March by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called the No Taxpayer Revenue Used to Monetize the Presidency (No TRUMP) Act (H.R. 1452). It would prohibit use of taxpayer funds to pay for events, overnight stays, food, or other miscellaneous expenses at hotels owned or operated by a president or his or her relatives. It sits with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But Republican committee chairman have shown little interest in the topic.
The intersection between Trump’s hotel properties and his role as president has been controversial since last November’s election and his decision in January to place his holdings under management by his adult children. A turning point came in March when the General Services Administration declined to challenge Trump’s three-year-old arrangement to lease and renovate Washington’s Old Post Office Building, which is now the heavily patronized Trump International Hotel.
The main action on Trump’s alleged conflicts of interest may come in the courts. A lawsuit filed against Trump by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is scheduled for oral arguments on Oct. 18 in U.S. District Court for Southern New York. Other plaintiffs include Washington restaurateurs who claim Trump’s hotel takes away from their businesses, attorneys general from Maryland and the District of Columbia, and some 200 members of Congress.
Jed Shugerman, a Fordham University Law Professor who filed a legal historian’s amicus brief in the CREW case, told Government Executive the litigation is bringing new attention to what is meant in the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. It states, in part, that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
His brief quoting the Founding Fathers challenges the Justice Department’s efforts to dismiss the CREW case on the grounds that the clause doesn’t apply to the president. “The issue has never been addressed by a federal court,” Shugerman said. The domestic aspect is clear in “preventing the federal government or states from giving any emoluments to president—it raises few problems with administrability because it applies only to one person,” he said. But the foreign clause “applies more broadly, to more officials.”