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Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge

Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge
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President Biden addressed concerns by government watchdog groups in the first days of his presidency by issuing an ethics pledge for administration officials that builds on an Obama-era policy for White House staffers.

Biden’s executive order imposes a two-year lobbying ban, similar to the Obama White House pledge, but goes further with its restrictions on so-called golden parachutes and shadow lobbying, drawing praise from progressives.

"There’s no doubt that this is a strong step forward for ethics in government,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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“The big question remains, of course, will be how strictly the Biden administration enforces this enhanced framework." 

Government ethics groups said they were particularly pleased to see the new rules addressing what’s come to be known as shadow lobbying.

Lobbyists are already required to register with the government if they spend at least 20 percent of their time engaging in lobbying activities.

Shadow lobbying is more common among former government officials or ex- lawmakers who have titles like senior adviser or consultant and make calls to members of Congress on behalf of a client or help bridge a gap in communications, even if they aren’t registered to work for that client.

“What we see happening is you kind of have the lower-level folks who register, do the shoe leather or go to the events, and then you have the VIPs and former members who don’t register. They don’t put the 20 percent of the time but they make the call that counts,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform.

Biden’s ethics policy says that senior appointees who leave the administration will be prohibited from facilitating communications between out-of-government colleagues and federal employees for one year. 

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McGehee noted that former President Obama’s ethics pledge didn’t address shadow lobbying.

“There’s no one saying you shouldn’t be able to do this; with lobbying, it's always about the disclosure,” she said, adding that a lot of people in town can make a connection to Biden and his confidants because of his long tenure in Washington.

“There are lots of people who maybe have worked with him, dealt with him, or had close relationships with him,” McGehee said. 

Enforcing a ban on shadow lobbying will be tough, especially since personal or casual communications can end up helping a client. 

“Companies, trade associations and labor unions across the board go to great lengths to comply, and consultants who skirt the disclosure law like this undermine the value of those good faith efforts,” said Fred Dombo, a partner at Nossaman LLP who advises clients on lobby laws and ethics compliance.

Dombo said much of the onus will fall on self-reporting.

“I commend President Biden’s intent here, but at the end of the day it’s going to come down to the former official being honest about what they’re doing not just with their contacts but also with their efforts in support of the lobbying activities of others, which earns them their fees,” he said.

Biden’s policy to prevent golden parachutes means appointees can’t receive cash or other benefits from their private sector employer as a result of their new job with the administration. 

Biden faced pressure from progressives to impose strict bans on lobbying before he released his ethics pledge. In December, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPhilly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans MORE (D-Mass.), Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyHillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine MORE (D-Mass.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyHouse-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference Bipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks Pentagon prevented immediate response to mob, says Guard chief MORE (D-Ore.) wrote to Biden seeking an ethics pledge that includes a total ban on lobbyists employed by corporations from serving in the administration.

Merkley applauded Biden for his ethics pledge shortly after the executive order on Wednesday.

Biden’s action came just hours after former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE signed an executive order lifting a five-year lobbying ban for members of his administration. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseIntelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters FBI director commits to providing Senate information after grilling from Democrat Biden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda MORE (D-R.I.) said Biden’s ethics pledge will help restore faith in government after Trump’s last-minute removal of his ban.

“Releasing members of his administration from their ethics pledge on the way out the door is an exclamation point at the end of the Trump swamp. I can’t think of a hollower commitment than Trump’s promise to clean up Washington. President Biden’s new order is a strong first step in restoring Americans’ faith in government after four corrupt years,” the senator said.

Biden had said he would improve on the Obama administration ethics pledge, which restricted former lobbyists from serving in the White House. But that wasn’t without its exceptions. 

Former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn served as deputy secretary of Defense for Obama, and Cecilia Muñoz, a former lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza, led the White House Domestic Policy Council. Dozens of other former lobbyists also joined the administration later in Obama’s presidency.

Steve RicchettiSteve RicchettiBiden expands on Obama ethics pledge Brother of Biden adviser Ricchetti hired as lobbyist at Amazon Left ramps up pressure on Biden for lobbying ethics pledge MORE, counsel to Biden, previously co-owned a lobbying firm with his brother, and Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE, Biden’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, is president of the industry lobbying group U.S. Dairy Export Council and previously worked as a registered lobbyist for the law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

Biden has also named Brian DeeseBrian DeeseBiden makes inroads with progressives The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Republicans squeeze Biden with 0 billion COVID-19 relief alternative Biden's push for stimulus checks sparks income eligibility debate MORE, former managing director of investment firm BlackRock, to lead his National Economic Council.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) argued that more administration picks who aren’t part of the revolving door will help Biden’s efforts to close it.

PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor cited Interior secretary nominee Deb HaalandDeb HaalandThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Increased security on Capitol Hill amid QAnon's March 4 date Murkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior reverses Trump policy that it says restricted science | Collins to back Haaland's Interior nomination | Republicans press Biden environment nominee on Obama-era policy MORE, a member of Congress, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau nominee Rohit ChopraRohit ChopraThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls On The Money: Tanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief | Relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority | Senate confirms Biden's picks for Commerce, top WH economist Biden picks for financial agencies offer preview of regulatory agenda MORE, a member of the Federal Trade Commission, as ideal picks.

“President Biden can continue to demonstrate his values by making more appointments like Deb Haaland for Interior and Rohit Chopra for CFPB, who both show it’s possible to appoint qualified, diverse personnel committed to public service instead of lobbyists revolving in and out of big corporations,” Taylor said.