Lobby lockdown: Biden bans advisers from taking corporate bonuses

The new US president wants to reduce the influence of corporations on policymaking, but experts say his moves will not eliminate it.

Biden's restrictions on corporate lobbying go further than those of either former Presidents Donald Trump or Barack Obama [Victor J Blue/Bloomberg]

President Joe Biden banned his senior advisers from accepting lucrative bonuses from their former employers for joining his administration in an effort to curb efforts by companies to influence the White House’s agenda.

Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday that also prohibits top administration appointees from lobbying senior White House staff for a time, usually two years, after they leave the government, an addition to the current ban against trying to influence former agency colleagues.

The restrictions will also apply to what’s known as “shadow lobbying,” in which former officials advise their new K Street colleagues how to influence the the government. Biden’s ban affects those who would plan outreach to their former agencies and the White House.

Biden’s order lays out lobbying restrictions that are more robust than the rules put in place by either President Barack Obama or President Donald Trump, signaling a tightening of the revolving door between government and corporate interests in Washington.

While Biden’s executive order may limit companies’ methods for shaping legislation and regulations in their favor, it’s unlikely to halt Washington’s powerful corporate influence machine altogether, government reform experts said.

“This goes a long way,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group. “Moneyed interests will always find a way to exert their power.”

Wednesday’s order on lobbying is one of 17 executive actions Biden signed on his first half-day in office. His team has said it also plans to resume publicly releasing White House visitor logs, a practice Trump stopped when he entered office.

Advocates who spend at least 20% of their time representing clients’ interests to decision-makers are required to file a quarterly report disclosing their contacts under lobbying laws.

Biden’s new ethics policy elicited praise from good government groups who argued that the order improves upon on the rules set by the Obama administration by banning shadow lobbying and other ways companies covertly influence politics.

“This is exactly what we want to see,” Hempowicz said. “It’s unfortunate that the standards can change so significantly from administration to administration.”

In the final hours of his presidency, Trump revoked his administration’s ethics pledge banning political appointees from lobbying the agencies where they worked for five years after leaving the government. His original order had also banned former political appointees from lobbying work for a foreign government or political party.

The Obama administration barred appointees from communicating with employees of their former agencies for two years after leaving government. While Trump imposed a longer prohibition, his focus on “lobbying activities” left the door open for companies to influence the White House in other ways, critics said.

Golden Parachutes

Biden’s implementation of the new rules will be a test of whether his administration will avoid the public perception that corporations hold undue influence over the White House while it retains top-notch talent, some lobbying experts said.

Enforcing such bans can be tricky and would require the U.S. government to discover that former employees engaged in clandestine lobbying and then take action against them for violating the rules — an unlikely scenario.

Paul Miller, a lobbyist and former president of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics, argued that the new restrictions may keep qualified public servants out of the new administration, without offering much transparency about how the government is influenced by special interests.

Biden’s order bans the so-called “golden parachutes” that companies have given to employees entering public service. In the past, those officials were simply barred from participating in any decisions involving their former employers.

But they also often received waivers from those rules, according to Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, who said he had consulted with the Biden transition team on the new executive order. Then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, for example, negotiated with former colleagues at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., during the financial crisis.

Obama issued 17 waivers to specific White House officials in his eight years. Trump granted at least 27 waivers — including some blanket waivers applying to all White House officials, according to disclosures posted on White House website archives for each.

“Trump’s executive order didn’t look that different from Obama’s and not that different from what you’ll see here,” Painter said. “What makes a difference is whether the president is willing to enforce it.”

Source: Bloomberg