Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., spearheaded the letter.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., spearheaded the letter. House Television via AP

House Democrats Seek to Reduce Corporate Influence in the Federal Government

A group of progressive-leaning House Democrats urged the Senate to not confirm lobbyists or C-suite officials for political appointments. 

A group of progressive-leaning House Democrats on Friday urged Senate leadership not to confirm any lobbyists or corporate clients or high-level executives from private corporations for appointments in the Trump or future presidential administrations. 

Thirteen lawmakers sent a letter, endorsed by 39-progressive leaning groups, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., outlining their concerns about filling the approximately 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions in the federal government. They sent the letter 18 days out from the presidential election and as former Vice President Joe Biden’s team is preparing for a potential victory and changeover of government, which included submitting an ethics plan as required by a new law

“After four years of the Trump administration, the traditional defense of hiring lobbyists and corporate officers – that they have ‘invaluable expertise’ that cannot be replaced by anyone without such experience – has been...nothing more than an unsustainable excuse for insider dealing and corporate favoritism,” the lawmakers wrote. “We stand with the American people who think it’s time to stop letting the same people write important regulations, leave government service to lobby against enforcement of those regulations, then return to government service again when the right political party is in power.”

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy nonprofit and one of the organizations to back the letter, has been tracking corporate influence in the Trump administration. For example, “putting former oil lobbyists in charge of [the Interior Department] and [Environmental Protection Agency] has led to years of decisions skewed heavily toward industry and the agency leaders’ former clients,” an aide to Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who spearheaded the letter, told Government Executive on Monday. “Whatever set of written rules allowed this setup to exist is obviously broken. The administration’s record of deregulation to help corporate interests at public expense, at these and many other agencies, speaks for itself.” 

A January 2017 executive order outlines the current ethics rules for executive branch appointees, which “includes an ethics pledge that all appointees must sign and abide by in advance of accepting their appointment,” Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, a policy analyst for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, told Government Executive on Monday. Some agencies, such as the Defense Department, have their own ethics plans and he noted there are also laws such as the Ethics in Government Act, which requires public disclosure of financial and employment records for public officials and their immediate family members and sets requirements on lobbying upon departure, and the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act.

Overall, Hedtler-Gaudette said he believes current regulations are insufficient because “virtually every administration allows itself to issue waivers that can exempt potential appointees from the ethics rules they have articulated” and there are loopholes in managing lobbying and individuals advocating on behalf of foreign countries. 

Trump’s ethics rules aren’t as strong as those of the Obama administration,  said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a grassroots organization that advocates for modernization and accountability in government and that also endorsed the letter. “As a practical matter everybody who the Trump administration appointed to run these agencies, their role was to capture the agency, to prevent it from doing things or to help the president’s friends or to hurt his enemies,” he told Government Executive on Monday. He said he hopes future administrations bring forth a “stronger” version of the Obama-era rule that banned lobbyists from serving in the administration (although it was met with some problems and loopholes, as Politico reported in December 2015). 

Schuman, Hedtler-Gaudette and the Grijalva aide all said there are plenty of qualified individuals who could serve in presidential administrations, even if the restrictions in the letter were implemented. 

Additionally, the Office of Government Ethics has a guide for prospective and current Senate-confirmed, presidential nominees that outlines how to avoid conflicts of interest, the process for financial disclosures, how to be an “ethical leader” and relevant statutes and regulations by which leaders must abide, among other things. 

However, Schuman said that OGE is “not really a watchdog or enforcement agency,” so its power is “fairly weak.” 

McConnell and Schumer’s offices did not respond for comment.