Within his first few hours on the job, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring his appointees to comply with the most rigorous ethics requirements in history. This ethics pledge is an encouraging sign that the new administration will prioritize a clean government. Despite this first step, the first 100 days of Biden’s administration will show if ethics will be “built back better” or collapse under heavy pressure from lobbyists and wealthy special interests that donate tens of millions of dollars to ensure their issues are prioritized.
If you haven’t noticed, the incoming president’s good government brand is coming under attack by headlines such as this one in Politico: “A secretive consulting firm that’s become Biden’s Cabinet in waiting.” For those who question whether ethics issues are truly developing into an early problem for the Biden administration, look at the developments of allegations in just the past few months.
Last October, in preparation for establishing a new administration, Biden released his transition team’s ethics rules, which banned the hiring of lobbyists with two notable exceptions — individuals who were not registered to lobby in the past year or who received approval from the general counsel. However, after the election, it seemed that the exception became the rule when it was disclosed that the transition team had at least 40 lobbyists and former lobbyists.
Lobbyists and consultants began boasting about how their relationships with the developing Biden administration were yielding a large crop of new corporate and foreign government clients. Days later, rumblings began about the nominee for secretary of state’s ties with a controversial, high-powered government relations consulting firm. Peeling back another layer, a private equity firm affiliated with the consulting firm announced a $200 million initial public offering after the election, soliciting investors with the implication that the firm will profit from government contracts in the new administration. Soon after, it was announced that Biden’s pick for defense secretary has ties with the private equity firm. The choice for secretary of agriculture has also raised concerns due to his current role as CEO of a dairy industry lobbying organization. And Wall Street firms paid millions of dollars in speaking fees to the presumptive treasury secretary.
Although the transition team’s ethics plan seemed promising, the rapid succession of these swampy innuendos warns that the perception problem will persist if this is not nipped in the bud.
Biden’s clear option is to implement his campaign ethics promise to “restore ethics in government.” He said that “the next president must demonstrate with their actions — not empty words — that public servants serve all Americans, not themselves or narrow special interests.” His ethics plan is rarely mentioned by anyone, but it has three critical provisions that would close the lobbying law and ethics loopholes.
First, he promised to issue an ethics pledge for all appointees on his first day that is stronger than Obama’s pledge and addresses “the improper influence of lobbyists.” He has done this, but the implementation and enforcement of this pledge will determine if it is criticized like his transition team’s ethics policy. Second, he promised to expand who is required to register as a lobbyist to include the controversial strategy consultants. Finally, he acknowledged that rules are meaningless without enforcement, and he proposed the creation of the Commission on Federal Ethics.
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The latter two pledges will take time, which means Biden will come under more pressure to quickly right the course against the lobbyists and wealthy special interest wave that is steering him, wittingly or not, to ethical distractions and disasters. He can take two immediate and meaningful steps within the first 100 days of his administration: (1) appoint a chief accountability officer who can coordinate the administration’s ethics agenda; and (2) establish a Lobbying Reform Task Force to guide lobbying disclosure reforms.
These recommendations are part of a comprehensive collection of proposals in the Accountability 2021 plan, which was compiled by a non-partisan coalition dedicated to restoring accountability to the federal government.
Our democracy depends on the public’s trust that officials are working for them and not their own personal interests. As a result of the damage to the public’s trust over the past four years, the Biden administration must act quickly to restore trust and not make any missteps on ethics. First impressions are made once, and the public will want the Biden administration to prove that ethics are a priority before an unnecessary scandal leaves the new president without a choice.
Kedric Payne serves as general counsel and senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.