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Increase Executive Branch Ethics Oversight and Slow Revolving Door, Public Citizen Tells Congress

Feb. 13, 2007

Increase Executive Branch Ethics Oversight and Slow Revolving Door, Public Citizen Tells Congress

Public Citizen’s Craig Holman Testifies Before House Committee About Executive Branch Lobbying and Ethics Reform

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congress should improve legislation under consideration to slow the executive branch revolving door and strengthen the enforcement powers of its watchdog agency, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), according to congressional testimony presented today by Public Citizen.

Craig Holman, the legislative representative for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about ways to improve the Executive Branch Reform Act of 2007, a bill designed to slow the revolving door between industry and the executive branch and to improve the oversight capabilities of the OGE. The “revolving door” is a system in which corporations and other wealthy interests develop close relationships with government officials through the movement of key individuals back and forth between the private sector and the public sector.

Holman identified the flow of people between executive agencies and lobbying firms and corporations as a reason for the sharp decline in public confidence in government. The Center for Public Integrity reports that a quarter of senior-level administrators left public service for lobbying careers after the Clinton administration and that 42 former agency heads registered as lobbyists between 1998 and 2004.

“Departing officials frequently join lobbying firms or register as lobbyists immediately upon leaving government service,” said Holman. “Clearly, the revolving door is spinning out of control.”

The Executive Branch Reform Act of 2007 would dramatically reduce revolving door abuse by requiring a cooling-off period of two years before officials can take action that affects a former employer or contact a former colleague. It would apply to both former industry executives and lobbyists who enter government as well as former government officials who leave. It also would prohibit government officials from negotiating future employment with private businesses that are affected by their official actions, with few waivers. The bill would clear all such waivers of conflict-of-interest regulations through a single agency – the OGE – and make the request a matter of public record.

Holman recommended strengthening the bill by prohibiting former public officials from conducting paid lobbying activities during the cooling-off period and closing the loophole that allows former government procurement staff to work in the same company – but not in the same department or division – that they oversaw as a government employee. Holman also urged that the OGE be required to keep public records about employment histories of current and past public officials.

Congress created the OGE as an advisory agency to oversee ethics laws for the executive branch. But the OGE has no authority to promulgate and implement ethics rules and regulations. That responsibility is left to the thousands of individual ethics officers for each executive branch agency. OGE cannot even enforce existing ethics laws and rules. Instead, it is envisioned by statute as an advisory “partner” with the executive branch rather than an enforcement watchdog.

Waivers to the ethics rules are handed out by the various ethics officers of each agency. One of the most egregious examples was the 2003 granting of an ethics waiver to Thomas Scully, the chief administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, by then HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. The waiver allowed Scully to represent the Bush administration in negotiations with Congress over pending Medicare prescription drug legislation while he simultaneously negotiated possible employment with three lobbying firms and two investment firms with major stakes in the legislation. The employment negotiations and the waiver were not revealed to the public or Congress while the highly controversial legislation was being debated.

Holman recommended ways to improve the capabilities of the OGE, which currently acts more as an advisory partner within the executive branch rather than an enforcement watchdog. As proposed, the Executive Branch Reform Act of 2007 would require the OGE to record lobbying contacts with covered officials and make the information available to the public in a searchable computerized database. But Holman urged the committee to give the OGE the ability to promulgate rules and regulations that bind all executive branch agencies, as well as the power to monitor compliance and pursue enforcement over violations.

He also advocated requiring the agency to serve as the central clearinghouse of all public records relevant to ethics in the executive branch and to place this information on its Web site, including records of waivers from conflicts of interest that are requested and granted, personal financial statements of appointees and the career histories of senior executive branch staff who enter and leave public service.

“When it comes to ethics problems, the executive branch shares much of the blame for the collapse of public confidence in our government,” Holman said in his testimony. “The revolving door must be slowed, and the OGE must assume the role of a genuine watchdog over governmental ethics rather than merely as an advisory partner-in-colleague with the executive branch.”

To read Holman’s testimony, click here.