Mapping out a transparent approach for the Biden administration

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Every new administration promises transparency and accountability. Typically they say it shortly after entering the Oval Office after the inauguration parade. What might be the Biden administration’s approach? The Project on Government Oversight policy analyst Tim Stretton has a few clues which he shared on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Tim, yes, they do all say this on the first day – we’re going to be the most transparent and accountable administration ever. But what do you think will be different this time around?

Tim Stretton: Like you said, all administrations, as they come in, make promises to be transparent, wrote an open government. But that oftentimes doesn’t actually happen. This incoming administration has run on a platform of ensuring a government that works for all Americans and for all the people and we are going to hold them to it. We’ve written them a letter and have encouraged them to promote strong ethics in government encouraging, them to issue an executive order that really makes sure that the government works for all Americans. And they put a restriction on lobbyists coming into the government to make sure that they are working for Americans and not their former clients or former employers. And this also involves working with whistleblowers and inspectors general, I think what’s really an opportunity for this incoming administration is they’ve both spent time in Congress, they know the importance of inspectors general, whistleblowers, and how valuable they can be. So I think they really have an opportunity here to really have a fair and open transparent government.

Tom Temin: Do you ever think that maybe lobbyists just a little bit, get less than a fair shake? And I’ll just make an example – suppose you are a lobbyist for the steel industry, I’m just pulling it up out of a hat. At one time a million people worked in steel in the United States, probably only a couple 100,000 at this point. But that lobbyist, yes, he is a lobbyist, and they might be from K Street or a law firm. But he represents or she represents factories, employees, markets, a supply chain feeding the steel industry. So that’s Americans. And so who decides when a lobbyist is not worthy of being listened to? Because they’re not working for the American people. And when they represent an industry that employs millions, and is worth billions, or trillions in commerce and wealth creation?

Tim Stretton: No, I think that’s a fair point. And I think what’s important about placing restrictions on lobbyists, lobbyists that come from the for-profit sector, is that there really should be a cooling off period before and after they joined government to really ensure that they are working for the American people, and again, not their former clients. In these agreements that when they enter government should be signed and put on paper and filed with the Office of Government Ethics in the public, so people can actually have faith in government. It’s really making sure that these restrictions are put in place before and after for a cooling off period. And that used to happen.

Tom Temin: And what about the idea, again, just to play devil’s advocate, or just to postulate this, that people from an industry or who have experience in an industry that enter government in a regulatory capacity, they could go either way. They could just kowtow to their former industry, or they could regulate from a position of understanding and knowledge of what regulations can actually be effective, having had experience in that industry. And so how does administration go about approaching that?

Tim Stretton: Yeah, I think obviously, everybody can enter government with valuable experience either on the regulatory side, even from the consumer side, but it’s really making sure that they disclose potential conflicts of interest, and that there are restrictions put in place for when they eventually leave government. So you can tell that they were not, you know, negotiating jobs, while at the same time negotiating a regulation that could benefit or harm that particular industry they look to go work for.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so in other words, you can have a revolving door, so to speak. And I know that’s a loaded word. But there just should be rules and time outs and time ins and so forth governing the use of it.

Tim Stretton: Exactly. The revolving door is something that has been turning and turning more and more in recent years. And you know, we’ve seen instances through various administrations, I think we’ve seen more prevalent in the last several years, that while some officials have left government, they’ve joined a job in the industry that they were regulating, literally within days, and that’s what we are trying to prevent.

Tom Temin: Sure. We’re speaking with Tim Stretton, he’s policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. And I want to pivot to the topic of Schedule F, which I guess we presume that the Biden administration will rescind, although they haven’t said that specifically. But the first agency to turn in the list of jobs that could be converted to other than career, but not Schedule C – well Schedule F, which is semi-political, I guess is the best way to put it – was the Office of Management and Budget. And you’ve looked at some of the positions and done some discernment there. What have you found?

Tim Stretton: The Schedule F is very concerning. It affects all federal agencies and what they have to do is they have to look through all their staff in the positions and identify those positions or any policymaking role, and the way that the executive order is written. And it’s so broad, it can be not just positions making policy or crafting policy, but also those that disseminate policy throughout the agency or outside of the agency. OMB, as you mentioned, is the first agency that actually has complied with this. We think they’ve submitted their list, but we actually don’t know. They haven’t been public about this. But based on OMB’s own assessment, 88% of their staff will be reclassified. And that’s very concerning, for several reasons. One, I mean, the executive order as a whole would truly politicize the federal civil service, which Congress for over 130 years has made sure it’s not political. We don’t want political federal employees that are there for decades, they should be apolitical. Because if not, it can just enable corruption. But we’re now seeing OPM is close to finalizing their lists. But just going back to OMB for a minute, you know, with an incoming Biden administration, OMB is going to be the most important agency for a new administration to harmonize their policies across government. And if several of their employees are either fired, or even the fear of potentially being fired, that’s really gonna harm an effective incoming administration.

Tom Temin: Do you think the idea of Schedule F could have been predicated on the various voices we heard throughout the Trump administration? That this group or that group, and there were leaks to the press and so forth, that there was actually “resistance” is the word they used, to the Trump administration policies. And regardless of whether those policies were good and bad, I’m not making a judgment there. But the model is that the bureaucracy says, “Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir.” That’s the policy, we’re here to carry it out. We make no judgment on it. But when you have secretly dictated books and leaks to the press about resistance and so forth, that might make any administration say, well, are these people really neutral with respect to comings and goings of different policy swings? Not that Schedule F is a great response to that. But you could see where that could give rise to such a such an initiative?

Tim Stretton: Yeah, I think that’s a fair point. But I think one of the things that’s very troubling with the Schedule F is frankly how it’s been rolled out. You know, undoubtably, there could be ways to help make it easier to hire or fire, you know, underperforming federal employees. And that’s something that Congress and the administration should be able to look at together. But this executive order was issued, I think, just two weeks before an election. And agencies are told within 90 days, they have to issue these lists of all these employees within 90 days. And that goes up to literally the eve of the inauguration on Jan. 19. So this seems to be rushed through. In the week that the executive order came out, many federal agency heads didn’t even realize this was coming. And it was a surprise to them. So something that’s a fundamental change as the federal civil service with potentially thousands or tens of thousands of employees could be affected by this, this shouldn’t be rushed or done in a secret way. This should be done in an open and transparent way. And frankly, Congress should be consulted, and they should have an opportunity to weigh in. And as it is now, they don’t. And that’s what’s troubling, given the long term effects.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so I guess this hot potato is going to end up in the Biden administration’s lap literally on day one.

Tim Stretton: Literally. And while we are hopeful that President-elect Biden and his team would rescind this order on day one, there’s actually no guarantees, because just like how President Trump would have benefited from this, a President Biden would benefit from this too, and has the same potential to politicize the federal service. So we really hope Congress looks at this and puts the brakes on it and says we need more data. We need more information as to the effects that this is going to have and who it’s going to affect.

Tom Temin: Tim Stretton is a policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. As always, thanks so much.

Tim Stretton: Great, good talking to you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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