Ethics experts says reforms are needed before the "public's trust in government is shattered beyond repair."
Republican lawmakers on Wednesday condemned a Democratic bill that includes vast new oversight to ensure ethical behavior by federal employees, though their criticism focused primarily on other provisions of the sweeping reform package rather than those aimed at the civil service.
Much of the commentary on the parts of the For the People Act (H.R. 1) concerning the federal workforce were positive, especially from the ethics and good-government experts who delivered testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. While the hearing was aimed specifically at examining those provisions, large portions of the debate broke down over political allegations about perceived hidden intentions.
Democrats unveiled the bill shortly after taking the House majority as their top priority for the 116th Congress. Under the measure, all federal employees would face a ban on using their official positions to participate in matters related to their former employers. Violators would face fines and one to five years in prison. Agency heads, in consultation with the director of the Office of Government Ethics, could issue waivers if it were deemed in the public interest.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the provision has become particularly important as regulatory agencies increasingly have been led by individuals with business interests affected by those regulations.
“We need to make sure the people that come to work in Washington are actually working for the people,” Raskin said.
Contracting officers at federal agencies would face a two-year ban on receiving any compensation from companies to which they played a role in awarding a federal contract. That would double the current cooling-off period, as well as add any affiliates and subcontractors associated with those companies. Procurement officials would also have to report any job offers their relatives receive from companies to which they have awarded contracts. Employees would face a two-year ban on any involvement with contracts involving former employers. Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, called the issue bipartisan, noting the changes simply make necessary tweaks to existing law.
Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the larger push a pressing issue.
"We need ethics reform before the public's trust in government is shattered beyond repair,” Shaub said at the hearing.
Republicans at the hearing largely neglected those provisions, instead focusing their ire on reforms such as automatic voter registration, restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, public financing of campaigns and other election issues they said were included in the bill to help Democrats get elected. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee’s ranking member, said many of the bill’s provisions were “radical,” sparking laughter from many in the audience.
“You can laugh, but it’s true,” Jordan said, adding the bill was “more like a wish list for the Democrat Party than an honest attempt at reform.”
Several Republicans suggested the Democratic proposal was overly broad and should be broken down into its component parts. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., conceded that “perhaps there are some worthwhile” provisions in the bill. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he would "be willing to look at" the executive branch reforms, and his concerns were more focused on changes to election law.
"Generally, holding the executive branch more accountable is something I've been consistent with without regard to any particular party," Meadows said after the hearing.
The bill would also serve as a reauthorization measure for the Office of Government Ethics and would make it harder for the president to fire the office's director. It also would give the agency more leeway in launching and conducting investigations and more teeth in enforcement, including through disciplinary action for ethics violators. Amey said POGO has found OGE to be a “paper tiger” due to its inability to compel agencies to comply with its requests and enforce laws on the books.
The new authorities proved a point of contention, as Republicans previously supported similar changes and criticized Shaub for saying in 2015 they were unnecessary. Shaub said he erroneously believed the existing federal ethics system was much stronger than it has proven to be.
“Frankly,” he said, “I was naive.”
Jordan also criticized Shaub for a series of tweets OGE issued under his guidance encouraging then President-elect Trump to divest his financial assets.
The legislation would double the prohibition on senior officials in the Executive Schedule from attempting to influence employees at their former agencies from one year to two. It includes a “sense of the Congress” that the president and vice president should be subject to federal conflict of interest laws and would prohibit the president from contracting with the government. Lawmakers at the hearing repeatedly highlighted the Trump Organization’s contract with the General Services Administration to operate a hotel out of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C., which has been subject to much controversy and multiple investigations.
Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who testified at the hearing, criticized a section of the bill that would reduce the number of commissioners from six to five. The move, he said, would allow a majority of one party to preside over the agency.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold another hearing on H.R. 1 on Thursday, focusing on a provision to require candidates for president and vice president to release their tax returns. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has indicated the House will take up the bill this month, though it is unlikely to make its way to President Trump’s desk as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made his opposition to the measure clear.