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Executive Branch Can Help Restore Public Confidence by Strengthening Ethics Rules and Enforcement, Public Citizen Tells Congress

Feb. 1, 2006

Executive Branch Can Help Restore Public Confidence by Strengthening Ethics Rules and Enforcement, Public Citizen Tells Congress

Better Enforcement, Shutting “Revolving Door” Between Executive Branch and Private Sector Are Crucial

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lobbying and ethics reform must go beyond Congress to include executive branch officials, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told congressional lawmakers today. In particular, reform should address officials who become lobbyists or officers for the companies over which they previously had oversight or influence through contracts and regulation, and it should strengthen the monitoring and enforcement of executive branch regulations under the Ethics Reform Act.

Currently, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is the executive branch agency charged with ethics oversight, but its authority is limited and its operation is flawed, Claybrook said in testimony to the House Government Reform Committee. The OGE operates more as an advisory partner, with practically no enforcement authority to police and watchdog the rules.

Additionally, the responsibility for implementing executive branch ethics laws and regulations is widely dispersed among various executive agencies, with the OGE issuing only guidelines that are interpreted by ethics officers in each government agency. Claybrook’s testimony is available here.

Claybrook also emphasized the pervasive problem of the “revolving door” – when executive branch officials rotate between public service and the private sector, typically working for the same companies that they previously regulated, biasing the performance of public officials and giving the recently departed officials unreasonable access to former colleagues. In an attempt to establish some sense of trust, federal law requires a one-year “cooling-off” period in which retiring public officials are not supposed to lobby their former colleagues in government. But the current policy has a major loophole: While it prohibits official lobbying contacts, it permits former officials to engage in lobbying strategy and direct others to lobby. 

“The executive branch has more than its share of blame for the collapse of public confidence in our government,” stated Claybrook. “The revolving door must be slowed, and OGE must assume the role of a genuine watchdog over governmental ethics.”

Claybrook called on officials to:

  • Expand the scope of the revolving door restrictions so that former officials are prohibited from conducting paid lobbying activity during the cooling-off period, including the development and supervision of lobbying efforts.
  • Expand the cooling-off period to two years.
  • Extend the cooling-off period to senior executive branch staff of Level V or higher policymakers that now apply primarily to procurement officers, to prevent them from seeking employment from contractors that received significant contracts as a result of the officials’ government actions.
  • Close the loophole allowing former government procurement employees to work for a different department or division of a contractor from the division that they oversaw as a government employee.
  • Make information available to the public when a public official discusses future private employment that may pose a conflict of interest.
  • Give the OGE strong enforcement authority with the ability to promulgate rules and regulations that are binding on all executive branch agencies, conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses and issue civil penalties for violations.
  • Empower the OGE as the central agency for implementing and monitoring its responsibilities, such as being responsible for granting waivers from conflict of interests upon recommendations of the affected agency.
  • Require the OGE to serve as the central clearinghouse of all public records relevant to ethics in the executive branch and place this information on its Web site, including records of waivers from conflicts of interest requested and granted, personal financial statements of appointees and the career histories of senior executive branch staff of Level V or higher who enter and leave public service.