Obama’s Revolving Door: Transparency

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Politico’s Ken Vogel reported yesterday on the recent increase in use of the revolving door for those exiting the Obama administration. President Obama began his administration by issuing a sweeping executive order on ethics for members of his administration. The ethics pledge specifically targeted the revolving door by increasing to two years restrictions on whom a former official turned lobbyist could contact and banning contact with covered officials for the remainder of the administration.

These rules were not without their loopholes. Officials leaving their executive branch job could still lobby Congress and it is questionable whether there was any way to actually enforce the ban on contact. The Politico piece does a good job of showing how this system is not perfect.

In showing that, it begs the question of whether the ethics pledge lacks accountability and transparency. Should the public be made aware of who exactly is subject to the ethics pledge, which officials have left their posts, and when the restrictions on contacts will be lifted?

Both the House and the Senate have searchable databases of post-employment lobbying restrictions, including the names of former members and staffers who are covered by the restrictions, the office from which they are leaving, the date of the exit from Congress, and the date upon which those restrictions would be lifted.

Why doesn’t the Obama administration do the same?

While the ethics pledge provides for these restrictions it does nothing to inform the public about those who are subject to, and may violate, the terms of the pledge.

A searchable database of ethics pledge signers who have left, or are leaving, the administration and when their restrictions would end would help provide accountability to the public for the administration’s ethics pledge and Obama’s executive order.

The administration revolving door policy does, however, have an element of transparency that both chambers of Congress lack. The administration revolving door policy limits lobbyists from serving in the administration unless they are provided a waiver. The policy similarly limits officials from working in areas that related to their previous work without a waiver. This information is all disclosed to the public through the White House’s web site and through reports on the web site of the Office of Government Ethics.

Even if Congress chose not to adopt the restrictive elements of this policy–requiring a waiver from an authority–it could learn something from this policy. While Congress provides the public with information about those leaving the legislative branch neither chamber provides information on those coming into Congress. Incoming staffers who previously worked as lobbyists are not disclosed in any way.

Both branches of government have something they could learn from the other when it comes to influence reform and efforts to make the revolving door more transparent.

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