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The Cozy Relationship Between Business Interests and Public Officials Is Undermining Confidence that Government Works for Us

Oct. 26, 2005

The Cozy Relationship Between Business Interests and Public Officials Is Undermining Confidence that Government Works for Us

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Stories of rot in the federal government just keep on piling up. Political cronies are appointed to influential positions to protect our safety, without a clue about how to do it. A government official quietly approves a highly inflated billion-dollar contract with the expectation of lucrative future employment. And there are scores of members of Congress every two years who are more anxious to cash in on K Street than serve the public that sent them to the Capitol.

No wonder the public’s confidence in government is at an all-time low. A major cause is the increasingly cozy relationship between business interests, their money and public officials – what this important report calls the revolving door.

The revolving door swings from industry to the government when corporate honchos and lobbyists are appointed to lead the governmental agencies that regulate the industries for whom they worked. Take Philip Cooney, the former chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Before government service he was an oil industry lobbyist, and after doing his damage by persuading the Bush administration to downplay the links between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, he’s now lobbying for Exxon.

Or consider Jeffrey Rosen, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation. For years, he represented auto industry interests at Kirkland & Ellis, a huge law firm. Since he arrived at the DOT in late 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,    whose legal work he oversees, has started to propose limiting auto industry liability if there is compliance with a NHTSA safety standard, no matter how outdated the standard or how dangerous the vehicle may be. While Rosen is now working the inside track, Kenneth Weinstein, former NHTSA enforcement chief and pre-emption expert, left for another major law firm, Mayer, Brown & Platt, and is working the outside game.

The revolving door swings from government to industry when well-connected public officials leave their posts to accept lucrative private sector jobs. Joe Allbaugh, former head of FEMA, cashed in on his agency connections to help well-heeled clients land millions of dollars in Katrina reconstruction contracts, including for Halliburton, which Vice President Cheney used to head. Halliburton’s expertise in disaster relief programs is based more on a permanent lobbying presence in Washington than on the performance of its contracts, for which it has been investigated by the government.

The revolving door swings from government to lobbying when former lawmakers cash out of the public sector and cash in with the private sector. Public Citizen has found that half of all U.S. senators and 42 percent of House members who left office since 1998 for the private sector have become lobbyists. Three of those who resigned from the last Congress now head major industry associations – Rep. Billy Tauzin at PhRMA, Rep. James Greenwood at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Rep. Cal Dooley at the Food Products Association (formerly known as the National Food Processors Association). Their goal: to coax Congress to give more tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory cutbacks, loan guarantees, contracts and more to their industries.

It used to be that a former public servant who became a lobbyist suffered a bit of embarrassment. Today, it’s become an embarrassment of riches with some pay packages worth a million dollars or more.

The revolving door is bleeding the federal government. It biases the performance of public officials, whose eyes are cast toward future employment. It wastes large sums of taxpayer dollars. It stifles competition. It puts public health and safety and the environment at risk. And ultimately, it erodes public support and confidence in government – which beggars all of us.

The scandals must end. It’s time to “Clean Up Washington.” The clock is ticking. Congress has less than a year to chart a new ethical path. This report outlines the reforms needed to restore the public trust. Sen. Feingold and Rep. Meehan are leading the way. Members of Congress need to act – not to continue feathering their private nests.