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Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge

The Hill logo The Hill 1/24/2021 Alex Gangitano
a man wearing a suit and tie: Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge © Getty Images Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge

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.

"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.


Video: Biden signs executive order disbanding 1776 Commission (FOX News)

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 Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (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 Trump signed an executive order lifting a five-year lobbying ban for members of his administration.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (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 Ricchetti, counsel to Biden, previously co-owned a lobbying firm with his brother, and Tom Vilsack, 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 Deese, 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 Haaland, a member of Congress, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau nominee Rohit Chopra, 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.

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