Were Biden’s Ethical Waivers for Labor Relations Justified?


Shortly after being sworn in in January, President Biden issued a sweeping ethical pledge for executive staff. But soon after, the administration granted waivers to two union leaders to allow them to hold positions of responsibility, angering some conservatives as well as accusations of hypocrisy. “The considerable presence of Labor staff in the administration is the driving force behind the policy”, Axios reported Friday. “And the president’s appointment of senior union officials to leadership positions gives these unions powerful voices in the federal bureaucracy – even at the cost of strictly adhering to his own high ethical standards.

Nonetheless, those responsible for ethics who spoke with Government executive stated that they were generally not concerned with the waivers granted in the cases cited.

According to Axios report, Celeste Drake, who was hired to lead the newly created Made in America office within the Office of Management and Budget, “was relieved of the ethical restrictions that would have prevented her from communicating with her former employers, the AFL-CIO and Directors Guild of America ”and“ in March, the Office of Personnel Management waived ethics rules for its Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Alethea Predeoux, who had been the principal lobbyist for the American Federation of government employees ”, the largest federal union of employees.

Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics under the Obama administration, said that “not all ethical deviations are bad.” Now a senior ethics researcher in the oversight organization of the Government Oversight Project, Shaub cited a December 2020 publication of POGO on the appropriate use of exemptions for those coming from non-profit organizations.

“These [new] waivers are a good thing because they allow the administration to have strict ethical rules while creating important exceptions for people who worked in the public interest before entering government, ”he said. -he declares. Government executive. “I would feel different if these appointees were from for-profit companies or a for-profit business association, but that’s not the case here. There is no danger that they can abuse their positions to help a former employer make a profit. Some have complained that they might share the views of their former nonprofit employers on issues, but ethical restriction was never meant to regulate thinking; it was aimed at preventing an unfair competitive advantage in business. ”

Jeff Hauser, executive director of The Revolving Door Project, an initiative of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said his organization has always said, “We don’t think lobbying is worrisome as such. Indeed, we are often more concerned with non-lobbyists, as we believe that much of the corporate influence game is conducted through institutions and individuals. [who] never register as lobbyists. (Hauser said he previously worked with Drake at the AFL-CIO, but that doesn’t affect the organization’s view of the situation.)

“People who have lobbied for their personal opinion on what is in the broad public interest do not have conflicts of interest when entering the public service, whether their former employer is a union, Catholic bishops or the Cato Institute ”. he said. “The people we fear to step into positions of public trust are people with a mercenary instinct whose political actions are designed to maximize personal economic gain, rather than to defend their vision of what is best.” for society as a whole.

Virginia Canter, senior ethics advisor at the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics watchdog group in Washington, said the waivers were “appropriate” for Drake and Predeoux because of the reasons given.

Based on his experience in administering similar waivers under President Obama, “these are deserved,” said Norm Eisen, senior researcher in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and former White House special adviser on ethics and government reform. “My philosophy of the waivers granted is that you should have strict rules and make occasional exceptions when there is a demonstrated need and that is what you have here.” Drake and Predeoux “have specific expertise which is important to get the job done.” He also noted that the Biden administration was transparent in posting the waivers online.

The administration has been “judicious and focused” with its use of waivers as a whole, Eisen said. “It is a balancing act” between respecting ethical rules and hiring qualified professionals capable of advancing the political objectives of the administration. The administration has so far issued eight ethics waivers, according to a listing on the Government Ethics Office website.

Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit seeking to reform the political system, offered a more nuanced view of the waivers. In a statement to Government executive, she said she would like to see more information:

“Given President Biden’s long history of supporting work, it’s no surprise that his administration is granting waivers to these people. These appointees certainly seem qualified. An ethics waiver can be justified if it allows highly qualified people to bring special skills to work on issues they have been lobbying on. In this case, however, it is not clear whether their role is to focus on external relations with the labor community or to develop policy or to be in a regulatory position. There is a significant difference in these responsibilities. Transparency and disclosure of their work will be essential in determining whether the exemptions were appropriate. “

Asked about waivers at Monday’s briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden promulgated “the strictest code of ethics ever adopted by a White House,” but “under limited circumstances when necessary and in the public interest, the ordinance allows agencies to grant limited waivers in consultation with the White House prosecutor’s office. ”

She also noted that the president “has been a strong advocate for unions throughout his career, and he is proud to have prominent union voices in the White House.” In addition to the two people who received waivers, Biden recruited union officials for his transition team and then for the administration.

The waivers, however, have drawn strong criticism from some conservatives and anti-organized labor groups.

Alfredo Ortiz, chairman of the Job Creators Network, an advocacy group founded by the former CEO of Home Depot that works to prevent government policies from hampering economic freedom, said Axios, “It is not surprising that President Biden’s appointments to head a union have resulted in anti-worker policies like the [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act and the minimum wage of $ 15.

Also, spokesperson for the Republican National Senate Committee Katharine Cooksey told Fox News Saturday, “The pattern of corruption between Democrats and big union bosses is obvious – you just have to follow the money and follow the staff.”

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