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. 

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 WarrenDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Trump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple MORE (D-Mass.), Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyOvernight Health Care — White House boosts mask availability Senate Democrats call for investigation into reported price gouging for COVID-19 tests Biden's FDA nominee advances through key Senate committee MORE (D-Mass.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Manchin, Sinema join GOP to sink filibuster change for voting bill Senate GOP blocks election bill, setting up filibuster face-off 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 TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy  Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE signed an executive order lifting a five-year lobbying ban for members of his administration. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs Infrastructure spending should not facilitate sawing down our National Forests MORE (D-R.I.) said Biden’s ethics pledge will help restore faith in government after Trump’s last-minute removal of his ban.

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“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 RicchettiBottom line Brother of Biden adviser to lobby for company that developed a COVID-19 vaccine White House incivility is what 'lost' Joe Manchin 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 DeeseMomentum builds to prohibit lawmakers from trading stocks Hillicon Valley — Airlines issue warning about 5G service Airlines warn of 'catastrophic' crisis when new 5G service is deployed 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 HaalandOvernight Energy & Environment — Lummis holds up Biden EPA picks Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden officials announce clean energy plans Biden administration announces actions bolstering clean energy  MORE, a member of Congress, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau nominee Rohit ChopraRohit ChopraCastor, Schakowsky seek information on children's online safety program Biden faces time crunch to pick financial watchdogs On The Money — Biden's beef with the meat industry 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.