In the winter of 2007, in between the two sessions of the 110th Congress, Sen. Trent Lott, an institution in Congress since the 1980s, suddenly announced his impending retirement from the Senate. Lott had an illustrious career as a legislator rising all the way to the top of the Senate, serving as Senate Majority Leader from 1996 to 2001, until a misfired compliment led his party to toss him as leader. Lott’s luck continued to run a shore as Hurricane Katrina demolished his gulf coast home leaving the senator to wage a battle with insurers claiming that there was no evidence that his home was destroyed by a hurricane because there was no home left. These reasons may have been enough to drive Sen. Lott to retire from the Senate when he did, but it was actually the implementation of a simple ethics requirement that pushed him to give up the trappings of the Senate and embrace the cash cow that is K Street.
In October 2007, Congress approved new ethics and lobbying reforms, including an extension of the “cooling off” period for Senators. The “cooling off” period refers to the period of time that some government employees are restricted from lobbying the government after they leave office. The new rules mandated a two-year “cooling off” period – extended from one-year – starting at the beginning of the next session in 2008. Trent Lott avoided this new rule by retiring on December 18, 2007.
“Cooling off” periods, or revolving door reforms, do not solely apply to Congress. The executive branch faces similar problems of conflicts of interest arising from appointees leaving to pursue private sector gigs and private sector employees entering government service. This problem has become increasingly acute over the past decade and that’s why the Project on Government Oversight includes revolving door reform as a key plank in their Presidential transition recommendations:
The President should issue an Executive Order that executive branch employees, including political appointees, must consider their position a matter of public trust and service, not a stepping stone for personal gain. Once they leave government service, there should be a three year prohibition against public employees and officials working for or representing industries or other private interests that they regulated, contracted with, or otherwise oversaw. Similarly, the President should exercise great caution in appointing individuals with ties to the industry they will oversee. The Office of Government Ethics and agency ethics offices should be given administrative enforcement power over violations of ethics, as well as the necessary resources to execute this new mandate.
These recommendations break down as follows:
1) Extend “cooling off” period from one- to three-years.
2) “[E]xercise great caution in appointing individuals with ties to the industry they will oversee.”
3) Give enforcement power to the Office of Government Ethics.
All of these are welcome recommendations as they will help stop conflict of interest abuses that have become all too common in government. The new restrictions proposed by POGO go a long way to making those employed by government focused more on their current service than the future payout in the private sector.
Of course, there are ways that the lobbying industry and the private sector have of circumventing these rules. By acting as an advisor, a former employee can help clients in their lobbying campaign without making actual contacts with government officials that constitute lobbying. These kinds of loopholes are likely impossible to close.
The brightest side to POGO’s recommendations is that they are incredibly likely to happen, as they have been embraced by President-Elect Barack Obama.
In the case of extending the “cooling off” period and exercising “great caution in appointing individuals with ties to the industry they will oversee,” President-Elect Obama’s plans, as told on Change.gov, are:
Close the Revolving Door on Former and Future Employers: No political appointees in the Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration.
On giving the Office of Government Ethics more enforcement ability:
Enforce Executive Branch Ethics: The Obama-Biden administration will give the Office of Governmental Ethics strong enforcement authority with the ability to make binding regulations, and it will work with inspectors general in all the federal agencies to enforce ethics rules, minimize waste and ensure federal officials are not using their offices for personal gain. The OGE will also be the clearinghouse of all public records relevant to ethics in the Executive Branch and place this information on its website. Finally, the OGE will promulgate rules and procedures to record all oral and in-person "lobbying contacts" between registered lobbyists and political appointees and make those records available to the public in a searchable computerized database.
The key now, for POGO and others supporting their recommendations, will be to make sure that promises like these are enforced.