Biden, Trump take dueling approaches to ethics, lobbying

Trump aides freed from lobbying bans, but will they get offers?

President Joe Biden's executive order would restrict "shadow lobbying" when officials leave his administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden's executive order would restrict "shadow lobbying" when officials leave his administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 20, 2021 at 6:32pm, Updated January 21, 2021 at 9:24am

One of President Joe Biden’s earliest actions, an executive order aimed at curbing the revolving door between corporations and the government, came shortly after his predecessor, Donald Trump, revoked a similarly themed ethics pledge. 

The two moves offer a stark contrast in the back-to-back presidents’ approaches to ethics matters. The new Biden administration seeks to portray itself as shoring up confidence in the ethics of the federal government, while the recently departed Trump team’s move to scrap a four-year-old executive order could help former aides secure private sector gigs with fewer restrictions on their lobbying. 

Whether Trump administration officials will find job offers awaiting them, though, is another matter. 

Not only do Democrats control Congress and the White House, making Trump aides less desirable hires, but also some officials departing the executive branch will find a uniquely challenging job market in the private sector after companies and K Street lobbyists expressed horror over Trump’s incitement of violence at the Capitol following four years of controversy. 

“It’s going to be challenging for a lot of the Trump politicos to land on K Street,” said Ivan Adler, a longtime lobbyist headhunter. “If you had serious policy bonafides before you went in the administration, the better off you are, especially in areas like health care and other regulated industries.”

But, he added, corporations will be “hesitant” to hire out of the Trump team “due to the potential negative PR.”

Trump order not enforced

Trump, however, did try to ease their path by revoking one of his early executive orders that extended lobbying prohibitions to five years. He isn’t the only president to try to ease restrictions on his former staffers’ post-government job options. On his way out of the presidency, Bill Clinton took a similar move of revoking his own executive order barring his aides from lobbying for five years. 

Lisa Gilbert of the liberal group Public Citizen, a regular critic of the Trump administration on ethics and other policy matters, said the ex-president’s revocation of his executive order came as little surprise. 

Even when the order remained in place, it wasn’t enforced, she said.

“There was no reason for him to pretend that it matters,” she said. “Revoking it seemed like the logical next move.”  

Though Gilbert said she was disappointed, if not surprised, by Trump’s revolving-door decision, she praised the Biden administration’s executive order, which limits post-administration lobbying of officials. The Biden also requires a waiver for any recently registered lobbyists to join the administration, a reprise of an Obama administration policy.

“I am optimistic that this is going to be stronger, certainly stronger than Trump’s, but building on what was a very strong foundation from the Obama administration administration,” she said, noting in particular the ban on companies offering bonuses to their executives for joining the federal government payroll. 

She also gave props to the Biden order’s prohibitions on shadow lobbying, or behind-the-scenes guidance, that many former officials engage in as a way to get around post-government lobbying restrictions. 

Lobbyist pan new rules

Lobbyists, however, say they’re not happy to see the return of restrictions on their service into the executive branch.

“It’s disappointing to be quite honest,” said Democratic lobbyist Cristina Antelo, who runs the firm Ferox Strategies. 

She and other lobbyists had urged the incoming Biden administration not to curb recent ex-lobbyists from serving in the administration because it could limit the administration’s pool of candidates, resulting in fewer workers who are Black, Latino and other minorities. It also may cut out potential officials who have deep experience in policy areas who now work for corporations.

“You can’t just have academics and people who don’t have real-life business experience,” she said.  

The ease with which Trump was able to undo his ethics executive order in his final hours in office represented his “one last cravenly corrupt act,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a statement. 

He added that it made the case for Congress to move quickly to pass a sweeping overhaul of voting, campaign finance and ethics laws — a measure that House and Senate Democrats say they will prioritize. “Congress should pass this important reform as one of its first orders of business, and incoming President Biden should sign it into law,” he added.

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