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Biden's Ethics Pledge Is Stringent. Some Want It To Be Even Stronger

On his way out the door, then-President Donald Trump released his aides from ethics commitments that were supposed to last years after the end of his administration. The revocation of his order freed the way for staffers to cash in on lobbying gigs.

Later that same day, after he was sworn in, President Biden signed an executive order requiring his appointees to take a stringent new ethics pledge.

"We're going to be judged [by] whether or not we restored the integrity and competency of this government," Biden said that first day, as he swore in appointees. "I need your help badly."

Biden's ethics executive order is a roadmap for appointees, meant to signal that those in his administration are committed to serving the American people — not their former or future employers, and not their own self interests. It's tougher than the ethics order Trump signed and repealed, and it's more stringent than the one that governed the Obama administration, too.

"These are the toughest rules ever," said Norm Eisen, who helped craft the Obama ethics rules and is now at the Brookings Institution. "Both coming into government and for when his appointees ultimately leave."

Biden's order bans accepting gifts from lobbyists, a standard item across administrations. It restores a reporting requirement Trump had done away with and expands the definition of lobbying, after Trump had narrowed it.

Notably, it includes what amounts to a preamble, taking direct aim at some of the most frequent criticisms of Trump's administration. It asks appointees to pledge to a set of norms that in previous administrations went unstated:

I commit to decision-making on the merits and exclusively in the public interest, without regard to private gain or personal benefit.  I commit to conduct that upholds the independence of law enforcement and precludes improper interference with investigative or prosecutorial decisions of the Department of Justice.  I commit to ethical choices of post-Government employment that do not raise the appearance that I have used my Government service for private gain, including by using confidential information acquired and relationships established for the benefit of future clients.

A White House official says this part of the executive order was follow-through on a campaign promise to ensure rule of law and avoid political interference in the work of the Justice Department.

While the president doesn't sign the ethics pledge (it is for executive branch appointees, not elected officials), the White House says Biden is committed to it and intends to lead by example.

"Four years of Trump have reminded us that we do need to go back to basics and the Obama EO has been refreshed, renewed and expanded by President Biden," Eisen said.

The Biden order says that when it comes to post-government employment, appointees have to wait two years before communicating with people at their former federal agencies or with senior White House staff. And it bans behind-the-scenes advising, like telling a new employer's lobbyists who to talk to or how to relate to them.

"Those are all things that can be very important with respect to lobbying strategy," said Melissa Laurenza, the head of Akin Gump's political law practice group. "The Biden EO obviously cuts that off for a certain amount of time."

People leaving the Biden administration can't work for foreign governments for at least two years (something that wasn't in the Obama ethics rules), and there's a new golden parachute provision that says an appointee can't accept a big bonus from their former employer to reward them for landing a job in government. Laurenza says this is welcome clarity because golden parachutes have tripped people up in the past.

"If somebody had done that then it could trigger recusal obligations," Laurenza said. "It could disqualify them from serving in certain positions. So I think having that in the Biden EO is very helpful."

Still, some ethics advocates are pushing Biden to go even further.

"I'd say it's a very good executive order," said Walter Shaub, who led the Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration and the early days of the Trump administration. "I wouldn't go so far as to say it's great."

Walter Shaub, former head of the Office of Government Ethics, speaks at a 2018 rally protesting Trump's response to the Mueller investigation.
Larry French / Getty Images for MoveOn
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Walter Shaub, former head of the Office of Government Ethics, speaks at a 2018 rally protesting Trump's response to the Mueller investigation.

He wants Biden to commit to releasing all "legally operative ethics documents," including waivers when people get an exception from the ethics pledge, and other approvals, like when appointees get permission to attend a fancy Washington, D.C., gala that exceeds gift limits. The idea is: The more that is released, the easier it is for everyone to see whether the administration is meeting the high standards laid out in the order.

"People comply with rules if they know somebody's going to come and check on whether they've complied," Shaub said.

The executive order does call for all waivers to be released within 10 days of their approval, and ethics agreements for senior White House staff will also be released after review and certification. NPR requested to see these documents for several senior aides but was told they are not yet available for public review.

Shaub also wishes the Biden order called for even more transparency.

"It's disappointing because I think we're in a post-Trump era where we've learned just how weak the ethics program is, and we have a narrow window of time to strengthen it while the country is reform-minded," he said.

In a statement, White House spokesman Michael Gwin defended Biden's ethics policy, saying it is "historically bold and expansive" and will "ensure that his White House and administration maintain the highest ethical standards."

Another example Gwin points to is that White House visitor logs and the president's and vice president's public schedules will be posted online, a restoration of Obama-era transparency. They haven't yet explained how quickly those items will be released or in what form.

The visitor logs commitment came in a tweet from press secretary Jen Psaki after Mike Lindell, the controversial CEO of the company MyPillow, got an Oval Office meeting with Trump in the waning days of his presidency.

Brookings' Eisen is urging the White House to include Zoom meetings too, since in-person meetings aren't happening as they used to in this age of COVID-19.

"President Biden and Vice President Harris have gotten the credit that they deserve for ambition and for bold commitments, but now they're going to be watched closely on implementation," Eisen said.

He says transparency, and knowing people are watching, are key to avoiding scandal.

The ethics executive order only applies to administration officials and doesn't affect siblings or children. Biden's brother Frank and son Hunter have drawn criticism for allegedly trading on the Biden name in their personal business dealings.

A White House official says President Biden has committed to prohibiting members of his family from working for or serving on the board of majority-foreign-owned companies. And Psaki said in a recent press briefing that "it's the White House's policy that the president's name should not be used in connection with any commercial activities, to suggest or in any way — in any way that could reasonably be understood to imply his endorsement or support."

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