What We Are Currently Doing About Government Corruption

By John House

RepresentUs New Mexico is a member of the Declaration for American Democracy (DFAD), a national coalition of more than 150 national, state and local member organizations working on various aspects of democracy reform. DAFD engages in a variety of activities, including lobbying our members of Congress in Washington, D.C., attending and speaking at congressional hearings, letter writing campaigns, phone banking on federal, state and local issues and joint letters that individual coalition member organizations may choose to joint sign. Below is the latest coalition letter pertaining “closing the revolving door” between industry professionals and government administrative positions.

SIGN-ON LETTER: To Rebuild Public Trust, Close the Revolving Door

We, the undersigned organizations, call on the winner of the next presidential election to commit not to appoint any individual to a senior policy role in an agency or department with authority over any industry in which that individual held a senior position or served in an advisory capacity within the last five years. We also urge that, if applicable, such individuals be excluded from positions with jurisdiction over personnel matters during the transition.

Trust is a fundamental precondition for effective governance. Yet, Americans’ trust in their government — already frighteningly low prior to Donald Trump’s rise to power — has fallen even further since his inauguration. This should hardly come as a surprise. Throughout the last four years, the public has been subjected to a never-ending parade of conflicted appointees who have enthusiastically set about rolling back the regulations that once restrained their former (and likely future) employers’ most destructive impulses. While corporate interests benefit from this regime, the American public suffers.

The next president must treat this trust deficit like the crisis it is. This moment calls for bold commitments to build an administration that is devoid of serious conflicts of interest and unequivocally committed to advancing the public interest above all else.

Trump did not write the current playbook, even as he has pushed it to new extremes. Steven Mnuchin is, after all, far from the first Treasury Secretary to hail from Goldman Sachs.

Instead of being treated with the care they deserve, appointive positions of public trust have most often been used as political bargaining chips, as rewards for particularly prolific fundraisers, or as if they were reserved for representatives of certain regulated business sectors. As a result, the upper echelons of the executive branch have more often been filled with corporate insiders, many of whom are only months removed from lucrative positions in the industries they are subsequently tasked with regulating (and, indeed, only a few years from a return to those same profitable posts), than with individuals who are unimpeachably committed to advancing the public interest.

The consequence of this practice is that the interests of elites and industry are over-represented in Washington. Ordinary Americans understandably feel they lack a seat at the table. In an administration dominated by revolving door appointees, policies challenging powerful interests face a harder road to enactment, and government priorities tend towards those of well-connected elites. Adherence to this status quo has contributed to the perception that all politicians, no matter their party, are corrupt and actively working to uphold a system that is rigged against regular people.

There should no longer be any dispute: this is a failed model. We need a new vision for executive branch leadership, one that takes building and maintaining public trust as a central imperative. Whichever candidate wins the presidential election this fall must overcome their party’s recent past and build public trust through their choice of appointees. There should be no room for doubt that their selections serve no interest but the public’s.

That must start with the candidate’s choice of stewards for the presidential transition. Too often, the teams crafting incoming administrations have been stacked with figures who work for corporate interests, undermining the frameworks that make way for collective prosperity. Unsurprisingly, the resultant administrations overwhelmingly reflect this inherent conflict of interest.

Past administrations have relied on compliance and mitigation regimes to manage these conflicts of interest, producing a web of disclosures, ethics agreements, and recusals. Even when perfectly applied, these strategies leave gaping loopholes that allow former members of industry to materially advance the interests of former and future employers. While these scenarios might not legally qualify as conflicts of interest under our overly lenient laws, the public is not fooled by the supposed propriety of these relationships.

The next president must, therefore, move from appointing officials who must manage their conflicts of interest to elevating conflict free individuals into senior roles in their transition and in their administration. As such, we call upon the winner of the next presidential election to commit not to appoint any individual into a senior policy role with responsibility over an industry in which, within the last five years, they held a senior position or from which they were compensated in a consulting or advisory capacity.

John House is a retired attorney from Los Angeles, CA who has made his home in Santa Fe since 2007. He is President of RepresentUs New Mexico.