No lobbying please, we’re American
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Obscured by the media storm created by President Trump’s first immigration order, a serious good governance initiative that was introduced the next day got very little airtime: the president’s executive order, “ethics commitments by executive branch appointees.”

The order, which has the potential to break the Washington, D.C. business model, requires Trump administration appointees to commit to:

  • a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments or foreign political parties;
  • a five-year ban on lobbying their former agency;
  • a two-year ban on advising on matters they were substantially involved in while serving the administration.

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The president’s executive order intersects with another inside-the-Beltway concern of late: election season conversations, or “contacts,” between the Russian ambassador and then-candidates Trump, Clinton, and their staffs.

 

There’s nothing wrong with the Russian ambassador talking to American politicians and officials. That’s his job, after all, though it appears to be a revelation to the commentariat and those brave “unnamed sources” who think a senator’s meeting with an ambassador in his Capitol Hill office is secret. The critics are a step slow: the real issue isn’t U.S. officials talking to foreign officials when they are candidates or in the employ of the American peoplem it’s what they do after they leave public service laden with contacts and valuable insights and information.

Here are some next steps the administration can take to strengthen and extend the ethics commitments.

  • The administration should extend the ban to working for foreign entities to state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as state-owned oil companies. To keep it simple and consistent, the ban could extend to representing the same officials and entities covered by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act;
  • The administration should extend the lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign entities to all retired civil service personnel and foreign service officers (retired diplomats are not restricted in representing foreign interests, unlike retired military personnel, officer and enlisted, who are already banned from receiving “consulting fees, gifts, travel expenses, honoraria, or salary” from a foreign state unless Congress gives its consent.)
  • Congress should formally commit to similarly strict ethics requirements for its members and staff.

A critic may point out that the lobbying ban will make it harder to recruit people for the administration if they can’t monetize their experience after their government service. Well, that depends on what sort of people you want to recruit: someone with an eye already on the door or someone committed to 4 years of public service. One benefit will be less disruption and turnover during an administration, as appointees won’t be tempted to resign at mid-term to lock in a lucrative lobbying contract while the administration has two years to run.

Extending the lobbying ban to SOEs won’t hurt the ability of foreign government-owned energy firms, for example, to petition the U.S. government. They can afford the best lawyers and PR firms, and there’s no reason the U.S. should be expected to provide a ready cadre of former officials, trained at American taxpayer expense, to advise them. 

Congress also should apply the Trump ethics commitments to its members and staff at the first opportunity. Or maybe the executive and legislative branches of government can have an ethics “race to the top.” The foreign lobbying ban may cause some consternation inside the Beltway as the upwardly mobile recalibrate their career plans, but it should be the bare minimum the rest of America expects of its public servants.

James D. Durso is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).


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