In the wake of the Trump administration's pervasive corruption and flagrant law-breaking, a trio of Democratic lawmakers is urging President-elect Joe Biden to establish new, high standards for federal ethics and transparency by adopting key reforms that would prevent corporate lobbyists from serving in the White House, require the disclosure of lobbying materials privately shared with administration officials, and crack down on financial conflicts of interest.
"The American public has a right to know when lobbyists meet with executive branch officials and what they share in the course of those meetings."
—Sens. Merkley, Warren, and Markey
Encouraged by what they characterized as Biden's "commitment to restore executive branch ethics through executive action," Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday sent a letter (pdf) to the president-elect with specific recommendations for how to "end special interest corruption of our politics and make government work for the people."
Americans, the lawmakers wrote, "have endured four years of the most corrupt president and administration in modern memory."
Despite pledging to "drain the swamp," the Trump administration "has allowed lobbyists and special interest to run federal agencies, even when they have been openly hostile to the agencies' missions," the senators continued. "It has allowed senior officials to maintain unacceptable personal and financial conflicts of interest, and allowed foreign governments to try to curry favor, as President Trump and senior White House staff abused the presidency to enrich themselves."
The Trump administration has also "shunned basic transparency, allowing lobbyists and special interests to subvert government for their financial aims and objections," they added. "Simply put, President Trump built a government that worked for himself, his friends, and special and corporate interests, rather than for the people, critically eroding Americans' faith in government."
To ensure that officials in the Biden administration "will serve all Americans, not just themselves or special interests," Merkley, Warren, and Markey recommended the following steps:
- Padlock the revolving door between special interests and government;
- Reduce the improper influence of lobbyists and special interests;
- Eliminate personal and financial conflicts of interest; and
- Institute a new standard of transparency.
According to the lawmakers, "the best way" to improve outcomes for people in the United States "is to stop special interests from profiting off of the public service of government officials and to padlock the revolving door between corporate, special interest and our government."
To this end, the trio insisted on "enacting a total ban on lobbyists employed by corporations from serving in the administration, especially at executive agencies they lobbied."
We have endured 4 years of the most corrupt admin in modern memory. @SenWarren, @SenMarkey & I are asking for much-needed ethics rules to close the revolving door between special interests & government. We deserve a government of, by and for We The People https://t.co/Fux528SmjW
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) December 21, 2020
In their letter, the lawmakers repeatedly commended the "ethics pledge" made by the Obama administration—claiming it "took unprecedented steps to close and lock the revolving door between special interests and government"—and encouraged Biden to build on and improve it.
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But, as Common Dreams reported last week, rather than close the revolving door between the corporate and civic spheres as promised during his 2008 campaign, former President Barack Obama hired so many Wall Street bankers that progressive critics referred to his team as the "Goldman Sachs administration."
With Biden recently adding Goldman Sachs veterans Monica Maher and Eric Goldstein, former McKinsey manager Josh Zoffer, and several Big Tech executives to his transition team, along with nominating military industry-connected officials such as Avril Haines, Antony Blinken, and Lloyd Austin to senior Cabinet positions, there are already worrying signs that the president-elect is hiring "some of the people who are responsible for the mess we are in," as the Sunrise Movement's political director Evan Weber put it.
In addition to sealing the revolving door, Merkley, Warren, and Markey pushed for "more extensive public reporting of all lobbying activity aimed at the Biden-Harris administration, including the disclosure of all materials that lobbyists currently provide behind closed doors to Trump administration officials."
Moreover, the Biden administration "could also consider requiring all executive branch agencies release monthly disclosures regarding all contacts with registered lobbyists, including the date, the name of the official the lobbyist met with, the issue upon which they lobbied, and any documents transmitted to the official during the lobbying contact, with appropriate national security safeguards."
"The American public," the lawmakers wrote, "has a right to know when lobbyists meet with executive branch officials and what they share in the course of those meetings," especially amid the provision of billions of dollars in financial aid to ameliorate the coronavirus crisis.
Calling Trump's blatantly self-serving actions of the past four years an "outright grift," Merkley, Warren, and Markey urged Biden to require "all senior administration officials, including agency leadership and White House officials... [to] divest from all individual stock and conflicted financial holdings."
Instead, the senators added, "officials should place such investments [in] qualified blind trusts, widely held investment funds, and other non-conflicted assets approved by federal ethics officials," while also abstaining from stock trading "for the duration of their time in public service."
"In order to rebuild Americans' trust in government, the Biden-Harris administration will need to embrace an unprecedented level of transparency," which the lawmakers said should include "disclosing visitor lists to the White House, federal agencies, and regularly traveled places (like Camp David)."
Merkley, Warren, and Markey concluded by expressing their eagerness to work with the Biden administration to "advance legislation in Congress to restore the promise of American democracy by making it easier, not harder, to vote; ending the dominance of big money in politics; and ensuring that public officials work for the public interest."
Meanwhile, they added, "we also look forward to working with you to do everything you can through executive action, without Congress, to help make the executive branch of our government work for the people."